Opportunity and Challenge: Customer Engagement
Advanced B2B client portals are already driving significant advancements in mass customization. In our recent industry report, an elevator manufacturing CXO referenced a 3D modelling application that allows customers to submit custom elevator designs. A paper manufacturer pointed to a tool that not only allows customers to select their box’s specific paper composition, but also uses data analytics to calculate and predict the performance of the resulting box.
The next phase of this evolution, predicted an auto CXO, will increasingly leverage VR/AR as a crucial piece of customer-driven design and buying experiences: “I believe digital technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality will play a vital role in the transformation to facilitate mass customization. It will drive customers to simplify the complex design process by giving them a seamless digital experience while customizing their vehicles.”
Nevertheless, despite emerging technology advancements and demonstrated success on the part of early adopters, many manufacturers remain concerned about the customer-facing aspects of mass customization. In our survey, manufacturing CXOs ranked a lack of extensive customer engagement capabilities and lack of access to customer data as the top perceived barriers to mass customization.
Challenge: Additive Manufacturing at Scale
Once largely a prototyping tool, additive manufacturing/3D printing is going mainstream. According to recent research, despite challenges with printing speed and production volume constraints, rapid manufacturing — rather than prototyping — now accounts for more than 60% of the additive manufacturing market. Additive manufacturing promises to accelerate mass customization by giving manufacturers increased local control of their components supply chain. When surveyed about the technologies required to facilitate mass customization, manufacturing CXOs identified additive manufacturing as the most crucial.
At the same time, as several manufacturing CXOs pointed out in our recent survey, further accelerating additive manufacturing will require solving critical challenges related quality control, certification and testing. “Cars are meant to be safe, and when customizing, it is not tested on prototypes, so checking the performance of customized products can be a real issue,” commented a German auto CXO. These costs add up, and because of costs, one CXO in our survey group admitted, “We have not yet wholeheartedly exploited the possibilities that additive manufacturing presents.”
In the US, the National Academy of Engineering has explored the relevance of Six Sigma as a method to ensure quality control in additive manufacturing, and recent research is delving into quality control challenges in the context of specific additive manufacturing technologies like Wire Arc Additive Manufacturing (WAAM). Nevertheless, the learning curve remains steep, and new approaches will be needed to make additive manufacturing a safe and cost-effective approach across more industry applications.
Opportunity: Mass Customization in Process Manufacturing
When it comes to mass customization, process manufacturers have a distinct edge due to the relative simplicity of evaluating homogeneous materials compared to interconnected components. A UK chemical manufacturer emphasized how automation and associated process/quality controls are enabling rapid production of custom products for clients: “In the scenarios where mass customization is required, specialty chemicals are partly produced in batches as per specifications; post that, using automation, we scale up the volumes of the individual batch produced…. By utilizing the full potential of cloud computing and the internet of things, we can track the composition of our end product.”
Certainly, process manufacturers may need to rethink plant design, workflow processes and data systems to enable such mass customization. However, there is no fundamental technical barrier holding them back.
Mass Customization as a Competitive Imperative
Fundamentally, mass customization will be a competitive race for manufacturers. The manufactures that impress buyers with customized offerings while limiting the costs of customization will inevitably be at a strong advantage in the market. At the same time, they will also unlock operational advantages from precise forecasting and minimized supply chain waste.
Despite the challenges, most industry leaders do not see any insurmountable barriers to achieving robust, advanced forms of mass customization. Already, the manufacturers that have boldly embraced digitalization find themselves pulling away from the pack. As a Norwegian aluminium manufacturing CXO stated in our report: “We are constantly engaged in improving our products and processes, keeping an eye on the market and environment. Robotics, automation, IoT and predictive analytics have strengthened our ability to mass customize our corrosion-resistant, sustainable, and lightweight product offerings. I believe these are the key digital technologies that will transform a company's ability to provide mass customization.”