Democratization of Manufacturing: Great Article in ASME’s „Mechanical Engineering“ Journal

Asme In the recent issue of Mechanical Engineering (April 2009), the journal of the powerful American Society of Mechanical Engineering , Associate Editor Jean Thilmany has published a great article on mass customization. His conclusion: Mass customization is part-way here; when the rest will arrive is anyone’s guess.

The article provides a great comparison of traditional consumer-co-design driven mass customization (you designing your shirt in an online-configurator), traditional engineer-to-order and small-batch production, and the new opportunities provided by 3D printing and rapid manufacturing.

As Thilmany observes in the article:

"Pine’s definition
[of mass customization] can get a bit muddled, what with the growth of rapid prototyping and related technologies such as 3-D printing. Is a rapid prototype an instance of mass customization? Does an object printed on a 3-D printer qualify?

If the printed piece is meant to be used as an end product—not a prototype—it’s an example of a mass customized product, Pine said.

“I always believe words have meaning,” he said. “It’s called rapid prototyping because you’re making a prototype.”

But say you design an object using an online service like Shapeways of Eindhoven, the Netherlands? That company allows you to upload your own 3-D models. Shapeways prints your object on a 3-D printer and sends it to you. You’ve created your own custom product, Pine said."

But what is the future of mass customization?

Donal Reddington, who runs the Web site, is quoted in the article on this:

"So far mass customization—of varying degrees—has supplemented mass production, Reddington said.  So why, in this age of the Internet, hasn’t it come closer to replacing mass production in both the retail and engineering sectors?

“The consumer society is very much based on the idea of gratification. I walk into a shop, see something I like, and walk out with a sense of satisfaction at having bought it,” Reddington said.

“But the predominant mass customization business model that’s gained root since the mid-1990s is the online model, which provided customers with the facility to go online and configure the product, order it, and get exactly what they wanted delivered after one week. Or maybe two or three weeks,” he added.

And where will this lead to?

Despite the impediments to adoption, all the experts interviewed expect mass customization to grow.
“Going into the future, the Internet will facilitate a new wave of mass customization, where customers will create and trade designs for physical products in the same way they trade music files,” Reddington said.  

And not only will consumers find ever-more Internet-based design tools at their disposal, they’ll continue to see advances in the capability to build their own products to their specifications, Piller said.

For the full article, available for free online, head to:

About the Author:

Frank T. Piller is a Co-Director of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the MIT Media Lab, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, and a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. Before entering his recent position in Aachen, he worked at the MIT Sloan School of Management (2004-2007) and has been an associate professor of management at TUM Business School, Technische Universitaet Muenchen. Frequently quoted in The New York Times, The Economist, and Business Week, amongst others, Frank is regarded as one of the leading experts on strategies for customer-centric value creation, like mass customization, personalization, and innovation co-creation. His recent analysis of the crowdsourcing business model “Threadless” (co-authored with Susumu Ogawa), an innovative crowdsourcing business model in the fashion industry, has been elected as one of the Top-20 articles in MIT Sloan Management Review.