The Design Implications of Mass Customization

May 1, 2001 · by Tim Crayton

Not only has computerization transformed design processes and design economics, it has transformed the nature of the products that can be created. The design software that designers use has moved from being a tool to being an intelligent environment

Computerization profoundly impacted all aspects of design. Not only has is transformed design processes and design economics, it has transformed the nature of the products that can be created. CAD allows teams of designers and other professionals to collaborate in new ways, to visualize different alternatives and try out different options, to keep options open longer and design different alternatives in parallel and pick up problems sooner. The design software that designers use has moved from being a tool to being an intelligent environment that can guide and inform the design process.

It has also made it possible to communicate design ideas and concepts to others more effectively, whether they are marketers, finance directors, focus groups, and other so-called ‘silent designers’—other non-designers who determine design outcomes. These technologies can be put—with suitable adjustments and refinements—in the hands of non-designers, including consumers and end-users, to allow them to co-design products by interacting directly with highly flexible manufacturing systems. Instead of designing for consumers, CAD systems will enable design by consumers.

From Mass Production to Mass Customization

At the beginning of the century, industrialized economies were on mass production, mass distribution, mass marketing and mass media. However, a combination of advances in information and technology is making it increasingly possible to ‘mass-customize’ - to rapidly respond to consumers with customized products at mass-production prices.

The term ‘Mass customization’ was coined by writer Stan Davis in his book Future Perfect but the term was popularized by writer Joe Pine. Mass customization has different implications for different products and in different sectors. There are also different methods and strategies to achieve it. Some products can be tailored or customized at the retail outlet or dealer (‘post-production customization’). Other products may adapt to the user, as for example, the intelligent systems, increasingly available in cars, that adapt (transparently) to your style of driving (‘adaptive customization’).

But as well as these softer, or ‘post-production’ forms of customization it, is also possible for the consumer to interact with the design and the manufacturing process to alter the design of the core product. For many products it will be possible to offer much freer or infinite choice. Indeed one of the most important distinctions running through all the different senses of mass customization is at what point the consumer becomes involved (design, fabrication, assembly, or post-production), to what extent the choice is configured or free and to what extent the process is ‘transparent’ or ‘collaborative’ and forms part of a dialogue between the producer and the customer.

This wide range of meanings of mass customization is reflected in confusion among design professionals. For some—especially product designers—mass customization means a return to the era of the designer-maker and for others— especially design engineers—the only form of true mass customization is, what can be termed, design-to-order. Both of these views miss the point: the key to cost effective customization is modularization and configuration. One of the key ideas and strategies to achieve mass customization is modularization - products are ‘decomposed’ into modular components or subsystems that can be recombined to more nearly satisfy consumer needs. The other side of the coin is the configuration systems that present the choices to consumers and determines what goes with what.

How far will Mass Customization Go?

Many people will be familiar with some of the examples that show, not only that mass customization is possible, but also that there seems to be an underlying or latent demand for mass-customized products. By offering a combination of relatively narrow configured choices, which are designed-in, consumers can make design decisions, which would normally be made by designers. Hence Co-Design.

Co-design does not have stop at the configured choice. It is also possible to allow consumers to interact with some of the more subjective elements of the design. Perhaps, as some commentators are suggesting, ALL products can be customized. Paradoxically, considering its huge significance, there has been little consideration of the implications for design. Or, rather, there is very little about what can perhaps be termed design with a capital ‘D’ or visible design as opposed to the underlying design rules or strategies that make it possible.

At the core of mass customization is a change in the current relationship between production and consumption. The nature of communication between producer and consumers changes from one way at any one time to an interactive dialogue. So the marketing function changes from, broadly speaking, selling one-size-fits all to explaining how products can be customized/configured and the capabilities of the producer are to create products that are more precise solutions to the customers wants and needs. Consumers will become, what Alvin Toffler termed, ‘prosumers’ (Prosumption = Consumption + Production). and co-designers of product-solutions for their individual needs.

Similarly, the task of design will also change. Clearly customization will have to be designed into products. The design task shifts from designing definitive invariable products to designing product platforms and architectures and the sets of design rules that define a range of product-solutions. Similarly, the new product design process will also include designing the design tools and interfaces for consumers as co-designers that will configure or determine the kinds of choices consumers will make and perhaps simulate the actual product.

In many ways, it is extends the kind of customer involvement that is already seen in concurrent engineering: it can now be in real-time and on going on an individual basis. Under the heading ‘Rethinking Design,’ the authors of one book on the future of production anticipate some of the ways in which design will change. ‘Implicit in creating solution products whose characteristics are jointly defined by producers and customers is a fundamental redefinition of design... design becomes part of the total production process. ‘

In this new paradigm the central issue is probably the balance between standardization and the relative freedom of choice that consumers are offered There seems to be an underlying demand for customization, but how much customization do consumers want? How will it vary from product to product? What will the effects of changes in supply (in one sector) be on demand across the economy? And perhaps above all, what is the best way to interact with consumers as co-designers?

While the discussion has largely examined the implications of mass customization on product design, what is the implication for architecture? Clearly, one strand in architectural modernism has been the so-called machine aesthetic. Equally clearly are the strong connections between Fordism and the Scientific Management movement and much architectural thinking in the twentieth century.

Perhaps we don’t have the same kind of dominant machine ideology anymore, but some of the confusion about mass customization does seem to stem from what are rapidly becoming outmoded ideas about production. The changing nature of machines and machine production, that is that is smarter, flexible and less mechanistic points to a new kind of machine aesthetic.

Obviously architecture is a complex case since buildings are obviously capital goods. Most building is one-off, although, of course, much of it is designed en masse. Buildings can be unique but are by and large created out of many ready-made components.

But many of the same questions arise. How will mass customization and co-design effect the architectural design process? Will consumers and end-users be able to have a greater say and input? How will the choices be explained to them? What will be the balance between configured and free choices? In effect, how much more of a building can be economically designed-to-order rather than specified off the shelf? What should designers do with this potential for variety? And how will they or should they interact with the end-users and consumers of architecture, however they are defined, who may soon be Co-Designers? How will designers take the lead in all of this?

Perhaps there needs to be a clearer rallying cry.We used to live in a world in which most things had to be made to be the same, but we are about to enter a new era where, if we want it, many things or perhaps all things can be different.

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