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Mass Customization: The Modular Model

June 3, 2014
Want to produce custom products on a massive scale? Think modular.

Mass customization sounds new and exciting, but really it is just taking elements of our current system of production – elements that have existed for hundreds of years – and mixing them in a new and exciting way.

It has evolved concurrently both from traditional craft production techniques like the style of production that you would see during the renaissance – the pre-industrial revolution – and simultaneously from the post industrial revolution, mass production techniques.

You still see facets of each of these production techniques today and each of them comes with their own costs and benefits.


Craft production has evolved into something we are all very familiar with today: engineered-to-order production. With that, companies that take a project bid, do research and development, analyze to the customer specifications, go in and engineer, design and build, and then deliver the product and then do it differently for the next customer that comes around.

These companies can offer a great deal of personalization to their customers, but it comes at a very significant cost in terms of the price of the product and in terms of operational efficiency.

So those businesses' particular interest is to drive operational efficiency and be able to pass on cost reductions to their customers to make them competitive.

That's something that engineer-to-order manufacturers have looked at for years.

Mass Production

Simultaneously to this interest from engineer-to-order companies to drive operational efficiency, we see an interest from the mass production companies who already have the operational efficiency.

They already have the assembly line, the economies of scale they are using to manufacture the same good over and over again.

But mass production companies fall short in the sense that they cannot offer value to consumers aside from price. They are making very broad assumptions as to what the marketplace wants, and producing a single product meant to be a one-size-fits-all to individual customers – and that is really not viable today.

So both sides of the production spectrum are looking to break out of this dichotomy, which is that you can either produce a highly customer centric product or produce a standard product very efficiently at a low cost.

Both of these companies are looking at the costs associated with their production models and trying to find out how to do both. How can I provide products that meet unique customer needs, and do so at a high level of efficiency and low cost to the customer?

This is what I would refer to as mass customization.

Three Steps to Modular Manufacturing

The idea behind mass customization is that you should be able to take requirements and specifications from the customer and pass them directly to the assembly floor without an engineering effort.

After all, it's the engineering effort that really drives the cost of customization in the traditional engineer-to-order system.

This begs the question: Without an engineering effort, how can I ensure that the product configuration chosen by the customer is possible to build? How can I ensure that it will meet quality standards, that it will be usable, that it will be serviceable?

Really, this is the obstacle that has made mass customization an insurmountable challenge for centuries.

The solution to this problem of having to involve engineering in every order fulfillment effort, every product development effort, is a technique that is called "rules-driven product development."

Rules-driven product development involves three basic components:

  1. Breaking your product architecture down into modules. You have to modularize your product so these modules can be arranged in different ways to create finished goods that meet unique customer needs.

  2. Leveraging new artificial intelligence technology that creates rules for how these modules can be arranged. What can be done, what cannot be done. These types of rules define the total range of configurability.

  3. Allowing customers to interface with technologies that help them arrange their own product configurations from a portfolio of modules, and choosing the way they are assembled into a final product.

It's that technology that has really driven the increased interest and increased feasibility of mass customization today.

Jordan Reynolds is manager of innovation consultancy firm, Kalypso.

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