The Right Stuff: America's Move to Mass Customization

Studies | Economy

No. 225
Tuesday, June 01, 1999
by W. Michael Cox & Richard Alm


For the Future, the Best of the Past

"Dell offers almost 16 million possible combinations of its desktop computer models."

Just as mass production was the hallmark of yesterday's Industrial Age, mass customization promises to dominate the modern stage of America's economic evolution - the Information Age. New eras, of course, don't arrive overnight. They emerge slowly and incrementally as they overlap with the old, taking years and even decades to transform the economy. Even so, we're already seeing noteworthy moves to mass customization.

Computers. Dell Computer of Round Rock, Texas, has proven that complex manufactured products can be made to order.5 Using the telephone or the Internet, customers describe the computer they want,the shape of the cabinet and size of the monitor screen, the speed of the microprocessor, the capacity of the hard drive. Other choices involve keyboards, mouses, video cards, modems, speakers, data-storage systems and software. The number of possible combinations is staggering - almost 16 million for desktop models alone. Dell begins assembling a computer only after it receives an order and then ships the finished product directly to the customer's home or business within a few days. Gateway 2000, Micron Technology and Compaq Computer also make computers to customers' exact specifications.

"Digitoe uses a scanner to measure every millimeter of customers' feet for custommade shoes."

Clothing. Off-the-rack apparel has always come in many sizes, styles and colors, but mass customization promises a perfect match for each buyer's fit and taste. Connecticut's InterActive Custom Clothes sells jeans over the Internet, allowing customers to specify hip size, leg and seat room, fabric, color, thread accents, leg silhouette, fly design, pocket style, buttons, rivets and even label.6 The pants are produced to exact specifications at a New York factory. Digitoe, a Washington company, uses a scanner to measure every millimeter of customers' feet for custom-made shoes.7 Using his computerized mobile fitting unit, Alan Zerobnick digitizes each foot's dimensions no matter the size or shape and builds a three-dimensional shoe last around which any style can be molded for a perfect fit. Orders are shipped in three to four weeks. Reorders require only a phone call.

Entertainment and Information. Music buffs who wanted to hear their favorite songs once had to buy dozens of compact discs. Now, CDuctive, a New York company, maintains an Internet site with sound bites from about 10,000 titles.8 Customers select a dozen cuts to be burned onto a CD and shipped to their door.

"CDuctive lets CD buyers select a dozen cuts from about 10,000 song titles."

In the age of mass media, the goal was to create newspapers and television stations that reached a broad audience. The Internet changes all that. NewsEdge Corp. gathers a profile of each customer's interests, then scans almost 700 news sources to deliver regular reports on current events, sports, weather and finance, all geared to the individual reader.9 Broadcast.com, a five-year-old Dallas company, operates a web site that transforms computers into the most powerful radio receivers ever, allowing listeners to pick up stations from Turkey, Argentina, South Africa, Sweden or anywhere else in the world.10

Health Care. Advances in biotechnology most important, the ongoing process of cracking the DNA code now allow doctors to individualize drugs and other treatments. Affymetrix, a Santa Clara, Calif., company, has produced the first biochip, a dense grid of molecular tweezers that extracts individuals' DNA.11 The biochip can analyze thousands of genes at once in effect, speed-reading the cells' DNA codes. Although the Human Genome Project has been mapping genes since 1990, biochips make the process personal. They give doctors information on each patient's medical condition.

Philadelphia's Acumin sells capsules customized with specific vitamins and dosages for each customer, cutting the number of pills some people swallow in a day.12 Advances in cloning technology are allowing doctors to take a skin sample and reproduce a patient's own collagen cells. Injections of the cells can smooth wrinkles and scars without risk of allergic reaction.

"Technologies make customization possible and competition makes it imperative."

In one industry after another, companies are customizing for the mass market. They're doing it because new technologies make it practical and competition makes it imperative. Futurist Alvin Toffler, who predicted the coming of mass customization in the 1970s, recently issued a stern warning to producers who aren't yet on board: "I'd say if you have a company and you're not moving toward automation on demand, you'll have a competitor one day soon who will put you out of business."13


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