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Mass Customization – the New Manufacturing Paradigm

For as long as anyone living can remember, manufacturing has meant mass production.  The assembly line developed by Henry Ford was driven by the need to bring complex products, the automobile in that case, to a cost level that was within reach of consumers.

However, as Henry Ford is reputed to have said, customers could buy his cars in any color they wished, as long as it was black.  Standardization was brought to an extreme. The customer could buy only what manufacturers produced and nothing else. The production process was completely deskilled, to the point that the worker had very little to do with the product and might not even know what part his or her work had in the finished product.

Computerization began to change this. Now short runs were more practical, since the machine could be reprogrammed quickly without disrupting the workflow. Design of products could be left to the engineering department.

The new smart factory brings computerization to the entire factory. Linking all parts of the production process, the manufacturer essentially becomes a single automated machine. Networking of all machines, processes and workpieces means end-to-end tracking and control of production

Customer-driven production

The result is customer-driven production.

Where manufacturers used to have to convince customers to buy what they had to offer, they now are in a position to offer what the customer needs.

Production runs are moving to a lot size of one. With all parts of the factory designed to be multipurpose and digitized, single-product production runs can be cost-effective. The plant may have as many parts flowing through it as it did in the old way, but each part is different, customized to the customer’s specific order.

The result is mass customization. Industry 4.0, described in a previous post, provides the framework.

Another feature of the old way of doing things was inventory.

Because of the extensive time required for changing tooling from one product to another, tool changes were kept to a minimum. Long production runs between tool changes resulted in far more inventory of semi-finished goods than were on order. Producers hoped that product demand would meet forecasts, since the need to use up stocks could be long after parts were produced.

Customer-driven production means nothing is produced until a customer has ordered it.

Tool changes are immediate and may be different from one item to the next passing through the machine. There is no inventory. Costs of keeping stock are virtually eliminated.

Vision needed

As manufacturers take on these paradigms, customers will come to expect the level of service that the smart factory can provide. These changes will take some time yet to fully take hold, but they are already being seen in some plants.

The technology exists.

What is needed is the vision to see ahead.

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