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Consumer companies are meeting demand for product customization, in turn spurring demand for flexible manufacturing to support mass customization.

Whether this is a momentary trend or a permanent shift for the consumer products industry, customization is going to new lengths, far beyond colour choices and sizes. Manufacturers are using data to produce items based on unique attributes of the individual customer, and increasingly doing so at scale. As consumer demand grows and the necessary technologies become more accessible, more industries and companies are adopting mass customization.

Canadian-American startup Wiivv, for example, sells custom-fit footwear based on foot scans that customers make using its app. Wiivv extracts hundreds of data points from the scan and uses them to create a 3D image, then produces the footwear using a 3D printer. Co-Founder and CEO Shamil Hargovan said that orders have doubled year-on-year since the company started in 2014, adding that Wiivv’s manufacturing facility could scale up to a million pairs to accommodate partnerships with major brands. “Our core belief is that the world is going custom,” Hargovan said.

Of the 1,360 or so companies or “configurators” listed on the Configurator Database Project website, many are niche manufacturers and start-ups. But big brands are also catching on, and using product customization to extend their product lines. Jagjit Singh Srai, Head of the Centre for International Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, has written about the complexity of managing product variability and scale. He predicted several years ago that most major consumer companies would have a customization operation within five years.

Along with smartphone apps and scanners, technologies such as 3D printing, networked production, robotics, and high-speed connectivity and data transmission are making mass customization possible. As these technologies proliferate, customization is spreading to an array of industries, including medical and dental implants. Replacement bones, joints and the like are generally customized, but 3D printing makes them faster, cheaper and better-fitting, according to the New York Times.

Across industries, the challenge of cost control in mass customization arises. Typically mass-customized products combine bespoke elements with standard ones, with the bespoke pieces being added toward the end of the production line. Demand for this type of manufacturing is having an impact on mechanical engineering. “Our customer is no longer just buying a machine to make its products, but rather the flexibility to make individualized product variations,” said Christian Bauer, Lead Developer of 5G at machine-tool maker Trumpf. It falls to the mechanical engineering industry to solve cost management issues.

With flexible manufacturing systems, “our clients can accommodate larger numbers of individualized, small-lot manufacturing orders,” said Eckard Eberle, Chief Executive of Process Automation for European industrial conglomerate Siemens.

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