Mass Customization Manufacturing Through 3D Printing

Back in the 1970s, American fast-food chain Burger King encouraged consumers to expect mass customization with its “Have it your way,” slogan. In a 1974 commercial, a customer asks if he’ll have to wait long if he customizes a Whopper to remove the pickle and lettuce. “No, sir!” the cashier replies before singing the jingle: “Hold the pickle, hold the lettuce, special orders don’t upset us. All we ask is that you let us serve it your way.” 

Although the customization of freshly prepared food is a relatively minor task — because the items are assembled by hand anyway — personalization is an even bigger challenge for products commonly made through mass production.

What is Mass Customization Manufacturing?

Mass customization manufacturing essentially requires companies to economically produce batches of tens of items when it was previously structured to produce batches of tens of millions through mass production. That in and of itself is a challenging shift. But, in some cases, companies also are expected to produce these small-batch or one-off, customized products in the same amount of time as if they were making them through mass production methods. This compounds the challenge tremendously.

For a long time, customization in the retail world was offered through the same shirt in different colors and sizes, for example. But now, offering items that are approximately the right size or an acceptable color is not good enough. Consumers are seeking items specifically tailored to them.  

Apparel brands are looking to use the digital connection with their customers to deliver personalized products. Whether its customized, 3D printed shoe insoles from companies like Superfeet or more complex offerings like full footwear from Adidas’ partnership with Carbon, buyers are increasingly migrating their loyalty from powerful brands to powerful connections. In other words, personalization plays an important role. 

Vidyard Cover

3D Printing Custom Insoles

To further complicate this offering, online shopping has simultaneously placed a premium on responsiveness. Where brands have historically had to select textiles over a year in advance of the season, Amazon and other online marketplaces have conditioned consumers to expect their product “their way” with two-day shipment.  

Different Options for Mass Customization Manufacturing 

This type of mass customization manufacturing is an example of collaborative customization. James H. Gilmore and B. Joseph Pine II, the co-founders of Strategic Horizons LLP, a thinking studio dedicated to helping companies design new ways to add value to their economic offerings, posit that there are four main types of mass customization. According to their article in Harvard Business Review, the other three are: 

  • Transparent customization, which involves the manufacturer paying attention to usage patterns, customer behaviors and customer preferences to create the products they need. Gilmore and Pine give the example of an industrial soap manufacturer that monitors its customers’ consumption patterns and creates a customized mixture of soap in the amount needed before the customer even has to ask for a refill.    
  • Cosmetic customization, which is used when customers or consumers will use a product the way it is intended but want it presented differently, such as in a certain type of package or with a monogram or other personalization.  
  • Adaptive customization, in which the manufacturer creates standard goods that can be tailored, modified or reconfigured based on the user’s needs without direct interaction with the manufacturer or brand owner. For example, users can customize their smartphones with apps or particular settings to suit their own needs.  

What Consumers Want from Mass Customization Manufacturing

Across the board, consumers are increasingly expecting greater mass customization of products and services. According to a 2018 survey by YouGov, the personalization economy saw a demand increase from 17% to 26% in the previous three years. In other words, at least one in four Americans say they have purchased a personalized product for themselves or someone else. About 30% of surveyed Americans expressed at least some interest in personalized products, and one in four said they had personalized a product for themselves or someone else, up from one in six in 2015.  

At the same time, consumers realize that this still is a bit of a luxury and are willing to pay more for it. Forty-six percent of surveyed Americans in the YouGov survey said they are willing to pay for personalization, and 19% of those who had never previously personalized a product also are willing to pay more to do so. Companies would be wise to make this an affordable luxury, though, because only 31% of consumers who like personalized products have $1,000 or more in monthly disposable income. By comparison, 61% of avid fans of personalization make less than $60,000 a year. 

In exchange for paying more, consumers also expect products made through mass customization to be delivered quickly. This is in line with e-commerce trends, which have primed consumers to expect next-day, same-day and even within-the-hour delivery.  

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How 3D Printing Enables Mass Customization Manufacturing 

As the number of consumers demanding mass customization grows, personalized products are a market opportunity original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) cannot ignore anymore. At its core, mass customization is predominantly consumer driven. This is a transition to where supply chain rightfully belongs, as perfectly aligning with the power of the wallet is an economically efficient outcome. 

If you can’t figure out and produce what your consumers want, you’ll end up producing a lot of items they don’t want and end up taking a loss, which in turn drives up costs that must be recouped. Mass customization manufacturing offers a venue for consumers and customers to dictate what should be produced when. The trends toward mass customization poses production and supply chain challenges for OEMs as they reconstruct their processes to drive unprecedented agility in their business and manufacturing operations.  

In many cases, quick production turnarounds are not feasible with traditional manufacturing methods given the lead-times and change-over costs associated with tooling and fixtures. As we consider products and technologies with greater complexity, customization — even in the most simple form of delayed configuration — strains traditional manufacturing methods and leads to increased production costs and extended timelines

In a traditional manufacturing setting, mass customization means smaller batch sizes and production runs. Between each run, tools must be changed, and the next batch must be set up, which increases the time spent between production runs. When using this method, mass production is more efficient than mass customization because there are fewer changeovers and downtime. Lost time in productivity results in higher costs and can make the overall process uncompetitive.   

So, how can companies build complex products for mass customization manufacturing? And how can they speed up time-to-market and beat the competition? The answer is becoming clearer with digital or additive manufacturing also known as 3D printing. By its nature, additive manufacturing does not require tool or mold changes, which means it eliminates much of the time and cost associated with production changeovers. In fact, the process is simple: send the digital file to the printer, print the item, clear the build unit, and repeat.  

According to a recent Jabil-sponsored survey about 3D printing trends, 91% of surveyed OEMs say using 3D printing to produce jigs, fixtures and tooling takes about half the time as it would with traditional approaches. Furthermore, 25% say 3D printing is more than 20 times faster. 

Jabil itself has used customized 3D printing to speed up production and problem-solving. By using 3D printing, we have cut the production time for a fixture from five weeks to five days and gained the ability to do quicker iterations of the fixture. For example, we had one particular fixture that we used to electrically test a part. However, this fixture had a slot on the bottom, through which the operator had to put his or her hand. Sometimes, a finger would slip and touch the circuit board, shorting it. Once we discovered this problem, we were able to design a solution in three hours and print it in two.  

Benefits of Using 3D Printing for Mass Customization Manufacturing 

Although the production speeds of additive manufacturing are impressive, most companies still focus on direct and indirect production costs as a key criterion for making the decision to switch to 3D printing. As it turns out, this production method generates cost savings in everything from capital purchases to tool costs to productivity. In fact, 46% of participants in the Jabil survey report that 3D printing reduces their production costs.   

Beyond that, however, customized 3D printing gives manufacturers an extra edge over the competition. In a new product introduction scenario, it frequently takes numerous design iterations and prototypes before a product is ready for market. By utilizing additive manufacturing, the design cycle is compressed and, in many cases, can be as short as 48 hours. That is a significant gain over traditional manufacturing methods. In line with this, 50% of survey participants report that 3D printing enables or will enable their companies to deliver parts faster. Realizing a faster time-to-market is a key advantage that can help offset the near-term costs to deliver mass customization manufacturing.    

Inventory and distribution cost reduction is another area where 3D printing aids in justifying the higher costs of mass customization infrastructure and processes. Mass customization requires a diverse set of parts. But 3D printed parts on demand can help manufacturers save considerably on inventory and storage costs. Plus, when items are produced on demand, the risk of excess and obsolescence decreases. Furthermore, because production can happen where the demand is, rather than in a factory on the other side of the country or world, shipping time and costs are nearly eliminated. As an added bonus, being able to meet demand quickly boosts customer satisfaction.   

Finally, mass customization provides a platform to collect valuable consumer data. When 3D printing enables your company to take on mass customization, you have access to a vault of new information you may not have had insights into before. This information can help you track trends and consumer preferences in real-time, helping to enhance marketing efforts. 

Mass Utilization of Additive Manufacturing for Mass Customization 

As manufacturers and their customers realize the benefits of using 3D printing for mass customization, use of the technology is expanding at a considerable rate. Twelve percent of survey respondents report that they use all of their 3D printing processes to make functional or end-use parts, up from 5% of participants two years ago. Furthermore, 61% of respondents use 10% or more of their 3D printing processes for this production purpose. 

Survey results show that 3D printing also has a considerable impact on industries. Nearly 60% of respondents say that 3D printing technology already has changed the way their industries think and operate, compared with 43% in 2017. Another 38% say the impacts from 3D printing are still coming, down from about half of respondents back in 2017.  

Looking ahead, nearly all respondents say they expect their companies to expand their use of 3D printing for the production of parts or goods in the next three to five years. Moreover, 79% expect their companies’ use of 3D printing to more than double in that time period. Participants also expect that mass adoption of 3D printing will increase as materials, processes and the 3D printers themselves continue to improve.  

The adoption of mass customization and 3D printing methodologies will no doubt produce some growing pains for OEMs in the near term. However, those that invest in it will be more likely to achieve nimble supply chains that can truly deliver products and services the way consumers want them.

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