Massive Shift to Mass Customization

Is mass customization of products finally on track to become the norm?

Academics and consultants have prognosticated this post-Industrial Revolution, end-of-mass-production era for two decades. They foresaw consumers routinely customizing goods online to meet personal tastes before the products are made.

No overnight sea change happened, however. Instead, companies—from the mammoth to the upstart—have slowly embraced or at least experimented with the approach, especially in recent years. Often this is how revolutions happen. Quietly, momentum builds until the revolutionary becomes the mainstream.

A not-all-inclusive database of companies offering online customization options now numbers 969. That’s, up from 900 a year ago when we first explored the vastly diverse portfolio of customizable products offered. In 2007, the database listed 400 companies.

Advances in technology, changing consumer attitudes, and a keener recognition of the business opportunities that mass customization presents have coalesced, signaling conditions are right for the long-predicted shift. (It’s welcome news at Embodee, given that our vivid 3D virtual product experiences are integral to customization of apparel and footwear for some of the world’s largest sports apparel brands.)

A recent spate of surveys and studies, widely touted in mainstream media, have served as a clarion call for the change ahead. Some CEOs and other executive suite officials of major companies have added their voices, too.

Last month, Siemens USA CEO Eric Spiegel told a conference that American manufacturing is in the midst of a software revolution, a revolution that will lead to global mass customization of products. In February, a Time magazine article from The Drucker Institute proclaimed: “Soon You’ll Be Able to Order Anything, Exactly How You Want.” In November, Forbes weighed in: “Having It Their Way: The Big Opportunity in Personalized Products.”

The trigger for the coverage appears to have been a widely cited Bain & Company survey of more than 1,000 online shoppers. Published last fall, the survey found that while less than 10% of consumers have tried customization options, 25% to 30% are interested in doing so.

“Sellers of everything from dress shirts to handbags and even consumer packaged goods are discovering the value of letting customers create their own unique products,” Bain’s Elizabeth Spaulding and Christopher Perry wrote.

The financial potential for companies? “While it is hard to gauge the overall potential of customization, if 25% of online sales of footwear were customized, that would equate to a market of $2 billion per year,” the Bain analysts said.

Then in February, analysts for McKinsey & Company delved into the technological advances that have made a massive shift more viable—and likely—than in the past.

“We believe the time for widespread, profitable mass customization may finally have come, the result of emerging or improved technologies that can help address economic barriers to responding to consumers’ exact needs in a more precise way.”

The analysts went on to identify some of the technologies. “For example, online configuration tech­nologies that can easily and cost-effectively assemble customers’ preferences and 3D digital modeling that lets shoppers envision the final product are becoming increasingly affordable and scalable.”

The week before McKinsey published its report, the Mass Customization Personalization and Co-Creation conference was held in Aalborg, Denmark. The seventh such gathering in 14 years, it featured more than 50 academic papers and 21 speakers, including our CTO, George Borshukov.

He made the case that if mass customization is to become ubiquitous, immersive 3D product experiences must play a key role.

Also at the conference, a long-time evangelist of the mass customization movement, B. Joseph Pine II, issued a bold proclamation. “The Mass Customization Manifesto” declares that mass production “as an icon, a role model, a paradigm” is dead.

“Thankfully, the ever-growing capabilities of digitization empower our businesses, our processes, and our offerings (whether they be goods, services, experiences, or transformations). For anything we can digitize we can customize.”