Mass Customization:
One-by-One Production


Some companies now allow consumers to upload their 3-D models, which are then printed and shipped. This lamp was created by one such company, Shapeways.

Mass customization, as defined by Joseph Pine in his book Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition is a company’s capability to develop, produce, market, and deliver goods that feature enough variety and customization that nearly everyone can get exactly what he or she wants. "Mass customization is when something is efficiently customized on demand—not in advance—and it doesn’t cost a heck of a lot more to make than it would if you were making it for everyone at once," Pine said in interview.

Though mass customization has grown since the middle 1990s, thanks in large part to the Internet, an era of mass customized commercial and engineered products has yet to fully arrive. Significant impediments to widespread adoption still remain.

If you look at the technique from the consumer’s viewpoint—the capability to buy exactly what you want at a price only slightly higher than an off-the-shelf alternative—then mass customization has fulfilled its early promise according to Donal Reddington, who runs the Web site, which is devoted to mass customization.  "Almost all types of durable consumer products, including clothing, footwear, household furnishings, toys, vehicles, and electrical and electronic devices can now be customized by the buyer at the time of purchase," Reddington said.


One expert termed the trend of giving users the capability to design and machine their own parts — such as via eMachineShop — user manufacturing.

Still, today there’s little in the way of true mass customization going on in its at the level defined by Pine—producing a physical object for anyone in a lot size of one. Many consumer companies today will personalize a T-shirt or a pair of shoes with the slogan or color scheme that a consumer specifies but the company is still mass producing the basic T-shirt while varying its color or slogan to suit the individual buyer.

Consider, which has been likened to a Kinko’s for machinery. The company machines customized parts based on CAD files provided by customers. Customers upload their designs to eMachineShop and the company machines them on its tools, including drills, laser lathes, and computer numerically controlled mills.

But say you design an object using an online service like Shapeways of Eindhoven, The Netherlands? That company allows you to upload your own 3-D models. Shapeways prints your object on a 3-D printer and sends it to you. You’ve created your own custom product.

There are also many companies that employ elements of mass customization as a part their business model and a number of engineering companies now take advantage of the Internet to offer what may—or may not—be termed mass customized products. For example, Quickparts of Atlanta provides instant quotes for the production of parts, based on uploaded CAD designs. Protomold of Maple Plain, Minn., can turn around low volumes of plastic injection-molded parts—again based on the customer’s CAD designs—within one day. While executives at both companies concede that they are not yet offering the capability to mass customize parts or products, they believe that they’re getting closer.

"We have customers who want to go to market with ten versions of a product, and we can make the tooling cheaper and faster than ever before for them," said Brad Cleveland, Protomold’s chief executive officer. "We’re enabling product-oriented companies to customize what they do, so we’re an enabler of customization. I’m just not sure about mass customization."

Cleveland and Quickparts’ CEO, Ronald Hollis both predict that over the next decade the cost of manufacturing will continue to drop such that custom manufacturing will become a given at businesses like theirs. "The costs will go down so that today, where we can make a run of 10,000 parts, in ten years we’ll make one part for the same cost," Hollis said.

Rapid prototyping is viable business concept today for many engineering companies, Cleveland said, and that activity can be extended into the mass customization market. "We’ve already shown a business model like ours—making parts quickly—has a tremendous amount of value," he said. "So ten years down the road, mass customization will no longer be a buzz phrase in industries like ours. It will be here."

[Adapted from "Democratization of Manufacturing" By Jean Thilmany, Associate Editor, Mechanical Engineering, April 2009.]

We have customers who want to go to market with ten versions of a product, and we can make the tooling cheaper and faster than ever before for them.

Brad Cleveland, CEO, Protomold


March 2011

by Jean Thilmany