What exactly is mass-customization?

Excerpts from Ankita Chowdhary’s interview with Bala Selvarajan and Robert Johnson, published in StitchWorld:

What is mass-customization and on-demand manufacturing?

When we say mass-customization or on-demand manufacturing, typically what comes to mind is the consumer level customization – a consumer designs a product from scratch and has it custom made. This, however, is just one niche use of mass-customization and its applications are quite broader. 

Take for example the sudden demand for face masks during the pandemic. You see an endless variety of them being made, but due to the difficulty involved in anticipating how long the need for masks will continue, or at what rate, the traditional model of producing and keeping inventory does not work.

The same is true if a brand wants to experiment with new styles, color or sizes, but doesn’t know what the demand is going to be, or wants to iterate faster with new designs rapidly. All of these fall under the broad umbrella of mass-customization, even though there is no consumer level customization involved at all.

What is real-time commerce?

What we mean by “Real Time Commerce” is the ability for brands to create thousands of SKUs virtually and instantly get those products in front of their customers and start selling. The products are made on-demand, after a purchase is actually made! Brands will manage all of their products and designs digitally and sell through e-commerce.

The key here, is the use of technology to produce high quality products on-demand and ship them to customers in 2 to 3 days. For the customer, this feels no different from ordering a product on say, Amazon, except the product may not have existed until it was ordered!

What is the relevance of mass-customization to brands and retailers?

Traditionally, retailers had to rely on long and expensive design-to-production cycles. What you see as the latest trend for the season has been on someone’s drawing board 60 to 90 days prior! All these costs add up as “Minimum Order Quantities”, creating large inventories, discounts and end-of-season sale!

The on-demand business model removes these inefficiencies and opens a new world of small batch manufacturing. The ability to a) create designs and get them to market in real-time b) produce the latest trends in small batches and bring them to market in as little as 2 weeks c) restock after it sells!

This provides two disruptive opportunities that traditional brands and retailers can tap into: Firstly, adapt to rapidly changing needs and consumer preferences by introducing new products, designs and styles. Second, use targeted small batch manufacturing to minimize inventory by stocking store-specific designs, sizes and styles. 

This is the real promise of mass-customization. To be able to expand product lines, bring designs to market significantly faster, all without carrying additional inventory!

 On the different applications of the technology:

Mass-customization has broad applications. The customization aspect itself can be anywhere on the spectrum – 100% owned and controlled by the brand, to 100% bespoke, designed by the consumer or a collaborative design process in the middle.

A large part of the design to production process and the supply chain for the fashion & textile industry has been manual. When you have tens of people communicating using different tools and systems, things are bound to be lost in translation. 

With a “purchase to production line” solution, a lot of these uncertainties go away and what is designed and visualized is exactly what gets made, bringing speed and predictability to what has largely been a manual and time consuming process. 

mass customization, on-demand manufacturing, apparel on demand

What is the future of mass-customization?

Mass-customization is the future.

Consumers will increasingly shop online. Consumers will increasingly demand personalization. Rapidly changing business environment will make large inventories impossible to hold.

The future belongs to those brands that are able to bring designs to market considerably faster and to then manufacture those products on-demand or in small-batches.