From start-ups to big brands, businesses are offering personalized product options to extend their product lines and increase sales.
This article is part of our continuing Fast Forward series, which examines technological, economic, social and cultural shifts that happen as businesses evolve.
At a production plant in western Tennessee, about 100 3-D printers, arranged in pods for different tasks and parts, spit out hundreds of pairs of individually fitted insoles and sandals a day.
Every pair has someone’s name on it. The footwear is based on foot scans that customers make with smartphones, using the manufacturer’s app. Customers transmit the images via the app, along with their choices of colors and patterns.
The manufacturer, the Canadian-American start-up Wiivv, extracts hundreds of data points from each scan to produce a three-dimensional image of each foot and then prints footwear fitting that customer and no one else. To make the product even more personal, Wiivv adds the customer’s name; in the case of sandals, the name appears inside the arch.
Wiivv is part of a new phase in the broader trend to offer customers personalized products. The new phase involves customization that is not only aesthetic in nature — choosing the blue item instead of the red one, for example — but also based on features unique to the customer, such as the shape of feet or a silhouette of a favorite image turned into jewelry.
Buying made-to-order footwear this way is popular. Orders have doubled year-on-year since the firm began in 2014 and now approach six figures each year, said Shamil Hargovan, Wiivv’s chief executive and co-founder. He added that the factory could scale up to a million pairs, to accommodate new partnerships with major brands. “Our core belief is that the world is going custom,” Mr. Hargovan said.
More and more industries and companies are joining the mass-customization bandwagon. Many are niche manufacturers and start-ups, unencumbered by expensive legacy factories and supply chains. Others are big brands that have added customization options to extend their product lines and increase sales.
The Configurator Database Project shows how widespread mass-customization has become. It provides links to companies allowing consumers to build individualized products, and the website lists about 1,360 companies in 17 industries.
Frank Piller, a professor of management at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, called configurators “an open call for participation” issued by companies to customers. One reason mass customization is taking off, he said, is that consumers are getting comfortable buying online and being specific about what they want.
Aside from shopping apps and smartphone scanners, several other technologies — 3-D printing, networked production and high-speed data transmission — are enabling mass customization.
Working in 3-D “enables you to print that one part that needs to be customized, without the upfront costs of creating a mold for traditional manufacturing methods,” said Gregory Kress, chief executive of Shapeways, a New York-based company that makes products based on customers’ 3-D printable files. He said his company had made more than 12 million unique parts for one million customers in 130 countries over the past 10 years.
High-speed connectivity and robotized factories also have a part. To keep costs low, mass-customized products often combine bespoke components with mass-produced ones, with the bespoke elements added toward the end of a production run. So-called smart factories are best positioned to add bespoke elements to otherwise standardized products in a cost-efficient way.
All these technologies have helped to send a wave of mass customization rolling through industries of every description, including footwear, apparel, jewelry, and medical and dental implants.
Following are some examples.
Apparel: Clothing, like footwear, lends itself to personalization because no two bodies are alike. The online retailer MTailor relies on scans using smartphones to make customized shirts, suits and jeans.
Jewelry: Customers looking for unique jewelry can prepay for a bespoke item online and have it made to order by 3-D printers. “People want jewelry to be individualized,” Mr. Kress said. “Many jewelers who sell unique products over the Etsy platform come to us for manufacturing.”
Medical implants: Replacement bones, joints and skull plates are often customized, but 3-D printing now enables faster, cheaper and — in the case of substituting for metal parts — better-fitting body parts. “There are more than 100 types of implantable and other medical devices that are 3-D printed and have F.D.A. approval,” said Stefan Randl, head of health care research and development for Evonik Industries, whose polymers are used in 3-D printing of biodegradable and permanent implants. “The long term vision is to have the 3-D printing done at the hospital: The surgeon would take a CT scan and print the device right in the operating room.”
Pharmaceuticals: Technology is also enabling customization of pills and tablets, where ingredients can be adjusted based on the patient’s age, gender, weight, genetic factors and previous responses to different dosage levels. “With 3-D printing, individualized pills could theoretically be produced on a distributed basis using printers located in pharmacies,” Dr. Randl said, adding that regulations would be needed for this to be done safely.
Steel making: Precision steel, as the name implies, has always been a bespoke business: Industrial buyers set specifications based on what they want to make with the steel. But high-speed connectivity and networked manufacturing now allow some producers to offer extras: a clear view in real time of what is happening on the factory floor, and the flexibility to change specifications until right before production begins. ThyssenKrupp, one of the world’s largest steel producers, offers both capabilities to large, trusted clients. “Customers can now be cyberpresent in our production facilities,” said Ulrich Schneppe, head of information technology at the company’s hot-rolling mill in Hagen-Hohenlimburg, Germany.
The demand for mass-customized manufacturing is changing the nature of the mechanical engineering industry. “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 Trumpf, a large machine-tool maker.
The challenge facing the mechanical engineering industry is to develop machine systems that enable manufacturers to produce small individualized orders at scale in a cost-effective way.
With flexible systems, “our clients can accommodate larger numbers of individualized, small-lot manufacturing orders,” said Eckard Eberle, chief executive of process automation for Siemens, Europe’s largest industrial manufacturing company.
By all indications, mass customization will spread to more companies, especially in consumer industries. “The customer’s input gives manufacturers valuable market feedback, which helps with product development,” said Manfred Dangelmaier, project director for mass personalization at Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering.
Under pressure from niche players, big brands will have to offer customization options — ranging from choices among a few preset aesthetic options to products truly customized to individuals. Jagjit Singh Srai, head of the Center for International Manufacturing at the University of Cambridge, said he predicted that most major consumer companies would have a customization operation within five years.
Niche market entrants such as Wiivv are banking on that trend, negotiating deals with brands that want to add customization to their product lines. Together with its partners, Wiivv fully customizes only the parts that enable a perfect fit, such as the dynamic arch support and multizone cushioning.
“We aim to manufacture with just the right blend of personalized and standardized components,” Mr. Hargovan said. “We call this ‘Goldilocks manufacturing.’”