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Making mass customization personal

November 24th, 2009 / By: / Graphics

Mass customization helps companies meet customers’ real needs—efficiently.

There was a time when a fast-food burger always came with mustard and pickles, whether you liked it or not. A special order flew in the face of the whole fast-food concept. When Burger King said “Have it your way,” the burger business got its first taste of mass customization. BK still used the same beef patties, still stocked the same condiments and buns, and still wrapped up the tidy packages in paper, but by simply selecting from standard “parts,” hungry customers could satisfy their individual cravings.

These days, you can have a picture of your schnauzer on your debit card, order U.S. postage stamps with your company’s logo, and get a license plate that reads “Ih8pkls.” None of these items gums up the works. Henry Ford himself would be impressed at how far we’ve come getting customer-specific products into the hands of the masses in an economically feasible and efficient manner.

Make it modular

If you’re thinking that interacting with individual customers and catering to their needs impedes a company’s bottom line, hold that thought and keep reading.

“A learning relationship creates an ongoing connection that becomes smarter as the two interact with each other,” says Donal Reddington, founder of MadeForOne.com, which documents developments in mass customization. “Individual customers teach the company more and more about their preferences and needs, giving the company an immense competitive advantage. Continually interacting with individual customers on their specific needs and desires is not at odds with operating efficiently.

“In fact, the continuing interaction should itself be a source of efficiencies, as the growing understanding of individual customers’ needs should enable the enterprise to fulfill orders more quickly and with less need for repetitive data-gathering. It also makes it easier to predict future customer needs and thus assess the nature and level of demand with greater accuracy.”

“The key to mass customization is modularity,” says Joe Pine, co-founder of Strategic Horizons LLP and author of Mass Customization: The New Frontier in Business Competition. A child’s toy provides a prime example: You can make anything you want by simply snapping together different sizes and shapes of LEGO®s, Pine says. “If you break apart your processes into modules that allow you to do different things for different people by picking modules out of a bin, then you can efficiently give customers everything they want.”

Online design

“One of the things you can do is create a design tool that allows customers to choose among the variety of products you have,” Pine continues. The tool works on “vanilla stock”: goods that are close to complete. “You pull out something mostly done and change the last few things to individualize it for a customer.”

The design tool he’s referring to is a ‘configurator,’ and its greatest strength lies in the Internet, where consumers can visually see a product and how it changes as they select various options. A great example can be found at the GG Bailey site, GGBailey.com, the direct-to-consumer division of Racemark International, a made-to-order floor mat manufacturer based in Calhoun, Ga. Consumers enter the year, make, and model of their vehicles and then view the appropriate shape of mat as they select a mat color, trim, heel-pad shape and color, and personalization or logo. For those who don’t want to go that far but still want something distinct, the company introduced Car Couture, which allows them to select from woven patterns ranging from traditional Oriental rug to leopard print. GGBailey.com’s just-in-time inventory and made-to-order process helps them produce customized floor mats in two business days, including personalized embroidery.

“People want to be able to really choose what makes them satisfied, as opposed to just buying something off the shelf,” says CEO Ginger Bailey, whose 40-year family business recently expanded into mats for the home and for pets.

The right machine

Racemark uses another mass-customization tool: a high-speed, single-ply cutter. “They were cutting six to eight layers of material for carpeting,” says Dudley Fenn, global sales support executive for Gerber Technology of Tolland, Conn. “Gerber started out over 40 years ago with high-ply cutting systems that were producing automotive seating and blue jeans for mass production, and we sold many, many systems around the world. As we got into different markets, our high-ply cutters were overkill, so we started manufacturing a single-ply or low-ply cutter to address the needs of mass customization.”

Globe Manufacturing Co. of Pittsfield, N.H., uses a Gerber low-ply cutter to produce customized firefighter suits. The GearBuilder configurator on its website allows customers to select features ranging from the type of moisture barrier to pockets.

SIF Technology Co. of Sarasota, Fla., which digitally prints custom images on leather, is fine-tuning its process and production line to the furniture market, reports Chris Cudzilo, vice president of sales. “We give [customers] the ability to take the design element of the overall project a step further than they have been able to do,” he says. “We can image and color leather within a 24-hour turnaround.” SIF has been mass customizing leather only since April, but its customers already include Nike®.

Make it easy

Offering customized options, however, risks leaving customers so confused that they do nothing, or abandon a transaction partway through. According to Pine, customers don’t want choices as much as they want what they want. And often, even when they know what they want, they can’t articulate it. “You need a design tool to help customers,” he says. “Don’t start with a blank paper. Start with things close to what the customer might want.”

“There must be a balance between the complexity of data required and the ease with which the customer can place an order,” Reddington says. “Mass customization cannot be a more difficult process for the customer than that which exists for buying mass-produced products.

“Research has shown that a huge number of potential options may be confusing and overwhelming to the customer, rather than beneficial,” he explains. “In this context, it is important that the enterprise is able to distinguish between product attributes where variety and flexibility is of value to customers.”

After identifying these attributes, Reddington says, a company next must decide how the choices will be presented: attribute-based or alternative-based.

“In the first method, the customer is asked to state their desired level for each attribute of the product. For example, a roll of textile would be presented to the customer with the option to vary [attributes such as] cloth pattern, color, roll length, etc.

“In contrast, the alternative-based approach involves showing customers several options, and they are asked to formulate within attribute preferences by comparing the alternatives. With this approach, various examples of textile rolls would be presented to the customer, each with a different combination of values. The customer must then ‘deconstruct’ each one in their own mind to arrive at preferred values. Research shows that for high-variety assortments, the attribute-based format reduces perceived complexity, increases satisfaction with the process and facilitates consumers’ willingness to make a choice.”

The second wave

Just as customers make choices on options presented to them, so must businesses when deciding whether or not to embrace the mass customization process. But one thing is certain, according to many experts.

“Mass customization will continue to grow in popularity as a business model, as it provides benefits for both customers (in terms of choice) and enterprises (in terms of greater capacity to satisfy customers’ exact needs and profit from doing so),” Reddington says. “It will never replace mass production entirely, just as e-commerce will never replace conventional retailing completely. The first wave of mass customization focused on customizing a product at the time of purchase. The second wave will focus on products that ‘learn’ customers’ changing needs after the purchase takes place and adjust themselves by electronic control, chemical sensitivity or other means so as to fulfill the customer’s exact needs at any point in time and not just at the time of purchase.”

“I do strongly recommend companies look at flipping the switch,” Pine says. “Get rid of finished goods inventory and do a full mass-customization model. Because, done well, it actually can lower costs.” It not only frees up money otherwise tied up in inventory, but also avoids the need to place on sale (or keep in stock) items that no one seems to want.

Mass customization is still a fledging business model in the specialty fabrics market, but Pine notes, “If nobody else has done it, that means there’s a lot of opportunity.”

Janice Kleinschmidt is a freelance writer based in Palm Springs, Calif.

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