The Right Stuff: America's Move to Mass Customization

Policy Reports | Economy

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

Promise of an Even Better Future

"We can already decode an individual's DNA."

Mass customization is already making consumers better off by providing just what we want. And the best is yet to come. What's likely to arrive in coming years will be truly astounding. InterActive Custom Clothes produces jeans to order, but even more elaborate systems are reaching the prototype stage. A customer starts with a stroll through a body scanner, which uses lasers to take 50 measurements from head to toe, then saves the data on a wallet-sized smart card handy for shopping. When ready to buy a new suit, shirt or dress, the customer mixes and matches from among hundreds of fashion accents. At the touch of a button, the order will go to a factory, where computerized cutting and sewing machines will turn out clothing with the buyer's own label sewn inside.

In the field of medicine, Affymetrix already makes devices to decode individuals' DNA. The ability to quickly gather heretofore unknown information about patients is giving birth to a new discipline called pharmacogenomics. Using this distinct genetic portrait, pharmaceutical companies expect to offer drugs tailored to individuals' age, symptoms, condition and hereditary makeup. Personalized drugs will not only ensure correct dosage, they'll also curtail side effects.

Mass customization promises more marvels like these. Interactive television will give families the power, now held by network program directors, to determine the nightly lineup. Automakers are starting to design systems that will build cars to order. Textbooks, scents, electronic gadgets and just about everything else will someday bear our personal stamp.

"In the 21st century, consumers will live in a world of their own design."

We might not see faster growth rates or surges in productivity, but mass customization will pay off for America. Resources are wasted guessing what customers want. When more products are customized, we won't squander money on clothing that sits in the closet because it doesn't fit or compact discs with only one or two songs we really like. And goods won't languish on dealers' shelves. Achieving a higher standard of living with fewer demands on natural and labor resources will help ease price pressures and continue this decade's good news on inflation.

Two centuries of American economic progress have brought us a standard of living that's the envy of the world. We wouldn't have it so good without the immense variety provided as companies move from standardization to custom-made. Our economy offers a veritable feast for consumers. Mass customization will make it even better. An economy that's delivering more of what we want and less of what we don't is doing its job in raising living standards. As we enter the 21st century, the United States is moving into a new economic era, one where consumers will be better off than ever before--because we'll live in a world of our own design.

NOTE: Nothing written here should be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the National Center for Policy Analysis or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before Congress.

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