Mass Customization and the Model T Cliché

Such is the fate of a popular comparison: mass customization of personalized products vs mass production of the all-black Ford Model T. Search the terms together to see how often it’s been used. Even some Twitter users poked fun at the rampant use earlier this year.

It’s unfortunate that the comparison has sunk into cliché-dom. After all, it’s starkly vivid: the freedom of individuals designing products based on personal tastes before they’re made contrasted with Henry Ford’s famous dictate, “People can have the Model T in any color–so long as it’s black.”

Introduced in 1908, the Model T was available in red, blue, green or gray until Ford concluded in 1914 that eliminating color choice would speed production and lower costs. He couldn’t have envisioned the array of design choices shoppers can make online now, 100 years later, including for Ford vehicles. For example, the company’s online configurator lets buyers of the 2015 F150 pickup truck choose from among 13 colors, 14 wheel designs, and many other customization options.

Recent surveys show that consumers, especially millennials, increasingly expect individual customization choices. They want to participate in the design of products to ensure they meet their aesthetic tastes and express who they are or perceive themselves to be.

As more brands and retailers fulfill the customization expectation, manufacturers recognize they must respond. A new study, “Getting Closer to Customers,” found that as technology continues to drive a global shift to customization, manufacturers see a need to relocate and make their supply chains more flexible. Eighty-two percent “now consider proximity to the end-customer as vital to their business model” to service consumers better and faster.

In other words, mass customization has come of age. One could argue that definitional contrasts with mass production of Model Ts a century ago are irrelevant.

Continuing advances in technology, including our own 3D virtual product experiences supporting customization, appear certain to make not just personalization but hyper-personalization the norm. In the process, the Model T-mass production example will, to use a well-worn cliché, fade into the dustbin of history.

Perhaps 100 years hence or sooner, the era of empowering shoppers to customize products online will be viewed as quaintly archaic. And the era will be compared to the new era of people 3D-printing the clothes they want to wear on any given day, not to mention a tricked-out self-flying Ford of the future.