From the January/February 2007 Issue
Mass conformity is dead. Long live mass customization! NICK SCHULZ on the explosion of variety and personalization.
“Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants...so long as it is black.”
No one knows whether Henry Ford actually mouthed the famous quotation attributed to him, but from its birth in 1908 until 1925, his Model T was available in no other color. That was the essence of Fordism—standardize production methods to drive costs down, making affordable goods in bulk for masses of consumers. The system turned America car crazy.
Frederick Winslow Taylor advocated the same approach in his 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management. It rapidly spread throughout American industry, contributing to a marked improvement in standards of living. But the new methods drove aesthetes batty. They claimed that mass-produced goods yielded a culture of conformity that was stifling, vulgar, and ugly.
The same drive for improvement that once created the conformity trap is now bringing us out of it.
This critique of “uniform ugliness” has been applied, over the past century, to a wide range of consumer staples. Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time magazine, reflecting on the turn of the millennium, observed that mass production, which ranged “from William Levitt’s suburban homes to David Sarnoff’s nationally broadcast shows to Ray Kroc’s Big Macs,…made all sorts of stuff, from toothpaste to TVs, more affordable, but it also led to a certain conformity.”
Early on, the champions of science-based industrial production acknowledged the criticism. The sign above the entrance to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933 read, “Science Explores, Technology Executes, Man Conforms.”
Now, however, technology is changing the nature of mass production—and undermining those earlier grievances. Consumers continue to enjoy the fruits of economies of scale, but with more individual tailoring. The same drive for improvement that once created the conformity trap is now bringing us out of it.
Consider that ultimate of machine-age industries, automobile manufacturing. Buyers of the Mini Cooper, said an article in The New York Times, “can select from 372 different interior options, from fabric or leather seats to the steering wheel cover, and 319 exterior options, like wide racing stripes on the hood.” About two-thirds of Mini buyers build, in effect, their own car rather than picking one off the lot or in the showroom.
Sport-shoe manufacturers are also exploiting customization. Nike now offers an “iD” shoe, permitting buyers to select the type of fabric and the colors of the shoe’s lining, laces, and midsole. Customers can even design their own identifying word or mark on the shoe’s tongue.
Adidas has countered by offering shoe buyers something approximating a custom fit. Traditionally, if a customer wanted made-to-order shoes, a cobbler would make a personal “last” that served as the form for building the shoe. According to Frank Piller, who teaches at MIT and is co-editor of The Customer Centric Enterprise, “Adidas can’t make custom lasts for all of its customers yet, but it offers an existing library of up to 90 lasts for each shoe size, meaning you can come close to a custom fit.”
What goes for sneakers goes for other clothes as well. The custom-made suit is no longer a luxury for wealthy dandies. At Brooks Brothers’ flagship store in New York, a massive body scanner takes each client’s precise individual measurements. The client can then pick the fabrics and details for made-to-order suits, shirts, and trousers. The scanner yields patterns that can be used to cut the cloth for a unique garment. Last year, Lane Bryant stores began installing a scanner called “Intellifit” that uses radio waves to fit their plus-size customers.
How about custom-made chairs and couches? Norwalk Furniture, based in Ohio, offers a “Variations” program. The company says it allows you to “choose your own styling details from a variety of arms, cushions, back pillows, and base profiles.” You can mix and match to make custom furniture pieces.
Even something as mundane as postage can now be mass-customized. At least two companies, Zazzle and photo.stamps.com, have automated manufacturing technologies that enable you to make official U.S. postage stamps with your own logo, baby pictures, or artwork.
Mississippi-based Viking Range Corp., maker of upscale kitchen ranges, builds 900 variations of its products to order, thanks to new high-tech, low-cost manufacturing processes. “All sorts of companies are discovering that, if they make their factories lean and flexible, they can run their businesses differently, freeing idle capital that has been tied up in stocks of parts and finished products,” notes The Economist. “The Internet has provided a handy means of linking up supply chains, in real time, in order to put this revolution into effect.”
Piller agrees. Many of the necessary manufacturing technologies—including computer-aided design (CAD)—have been in place for a generation or two. But by driving the marginal cost of sharing data between customers and manufacturers to zero, Piller says, the Internet has made mass customization affordable.
The explosion of customization options poses a new kind of challenge. Stefan Stremersch of Emory University’s business school warns that companies frequently “offload too much complexity to consumers just because they can. Consumers, faced with so many choices, are bailing out because the process is too complex for them.”