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Mass Customization’s Role in a Sustainable Economy

Mass production has been used since the industrial revolution as a means of creating large quantities of standardized products. It has many advantages over one-at-a-time production. It reduces coast and provide interchangeable parts.  Its disadvantages are that it can over produce and it dehumanizes labor.

Mass production will often continue to build inventory in spite of an economic slump. Large inventories can lead to massive layoffs. Unemployment reduces consumption and a viscous circle ensues.

The worst feature of mass production is its resistance to innovation. Large capitalization in tooling and training make any changes prohibitively expensive. The assembly line must be shut down. The large inventories of parts from suppliers become waste and these suppliers must also shut down, retool and retrain.

Mass Customization is a new manufacturing model that has the advantages of large production and cost reduction, but is flexible, limits inventories and challenges worker innovation. It is a direct result of IT (information technology) and robotics.

Mass customization is the production of goods to individual demands with mass production efficiency. A primary goal of mass customization is to eliminate waste by inventory control techniques such as, JIT (just-in-time) production.

JIT attempts to maintain the smallest inventory possible. Parts arrive just-in-time to be assembled in the product. Innovation can happen as quickly as information can reach the part manufacture. This provides more flexibility to the market, reduces waste, and defects.

JIT relies on the capability to describe the fabrication of a part by CAD (Computer-Aided-Design) files that can be attached and sent by email. Since these parts are custom, they are never out of stock or discontinued.

Mass customization products do not have a life cycle or become obsolete. They are always evolving to satisfy market demand. Stan Davis calls this, “Future Perfect.” (1)

Mass Customization requires a new workforce to run robotic factories. These new workers will be individuals trained in industrial technologies – such as, computer, electronics, chemistry, mechanics, and materials.

I believe that we are at a turning point in manufacturing technology. Those who B. Joseph Pine II (2) calls the “Old Competition,” believe that the solution to an economic slow down is to increase sales of old products. The “New competition” seeks to meet market demand with innovations that will extend the life cycle, durability and dependability of products.

We need a new model for production and consumption. According to World Watch, “If the consumption aspiration of the wealthiest of nations cannot be satiated, the prospects for corralling consumption everywhere before it strips and degrades our planet beyond recognition would appear to be bleak”

We need a new work ethics. We need to work less but smarter, make less but better. We need to become more intelligent consumers. Perhaps we will eventually order goods that really meet our needs before they’re made.

(1) Future Perfect by Stan Davis

(2) Mass Customization by B. Joseph Pine II.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Written by Fred Etcheverry

Fred Etcheverry lives in Santa Cruz, California with his wife Elsa. He is a freelance high-tech B2B (Business-to-Business) copywriter usually for clients in the nearby Silicon Valley. He is also an engineering consultant and teaches courses in industry and college on computers and electronics. When he is doing none of the above, he swims in the Monterey Bay, hikes in the Santa Cruz redwood forests, visits his adult children, or goes to art galleries, plays and operas with Elsa and friends.


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