In every industry across the board, customers are demanding customized products, and manufacturers must rise to the challenges. Regardless of how simple or complex the product, mass customization at mass production volumes is difficult. There is a level of intricacy involved in manufacturing for a market of one that is at odds with the typical mass-manufacturing philosophy. Here are a few of the toughest challenges:

Maintaining Quality

Sustained high quality is difficult in any manufacturing environment. However, when every product that comes through is different, it’s a whole new ball game. In fact, APICS, the professional association for supply chain management, notes that high quality is a prerequisite for mass customization.

Fit and finish on components must be perfect to ensure that the final product looks great, regardless of the configuration. Components, modules and sub-assemblies must be tested in a variety of combinations — and the manufacturer may never test some permutations before building them for a customer order.

That means, more than ever, quality must become an integral part of the production process. All employees must be constantly on the lookout for quality issues, and they must be empowered to do whatever it takes to ensure a top-notch product.

Short Lead Times and Price Pressures

While customers love the idea of a customized product, they rarely believe they should have to pay more or wait longer for the custom version than they would for a generic model. That puts pressure on manufacturers to squeeze every bit of waste out of their processes, all the way from order entry to final shipment. Every step that adds to lead time must be scrutinized and eliminated if there is no additional value.

Process Agility

It’s axiomatic that cutting out waste in the manufacturing process improves agility. When it takes less time to move through production, manufacturers have more time for customization steps that add value, and they enjoy increased throughput.

The Lean Enterprise Institute has an interesting take on process agility. It advises identifying the customer for every machine or process step and then taking the steps that provide customer satisfaction.

Adaptable Supply Networks

Quality and speed become more critical as mass customization becomes more pervasive, but that puts increasing pressure on the supply chain. Suppliers must be lean and adaptable, able to deliver variations on products and respond to changes in requirements quickly.

Here too, quality is of paramount importance. As speed and agility are critical to providing customized products at a reasonable cost, there is neither time nor budget to spend on extensive incoming inspection processes. Suppliers must be reliable enough that the manufacturer knows material will be delivered on time and at a consistent quality. This reliability enables the manufacturer to dispense with many traditional inspection procedures without the risk of facing extensive rework during processing or product returns at a later point.

Adaptable supply networks require constant communication to ensure that every node in the network is aware of changes in demand or any event that could affect lead time. This requires a level of trust and openness that is missing from many supply chains. However, mass customization without the supply network infrastructure to support it can be difficult to sustain.

While these are not the only challenges manufacturers will face as they embark on the journey to mass customization, they are some of the most critical. Without the proper quality and processes in place, mass customization may not be profitable or sustainable. On the other hand, with the right infrastructure, mass customization can be a ticket to market leadership.

About the Author

Ron Mouw is the sales director at Autodesk Configure One, a leader in 3-D design, engineering and entertainment software.