The latest edition of the Moo newsletter mentions that many subscribers have never purchased anything from their site. It was a surprise since it seems odd to get an email newsletter about custom business cards/printing if you never plan to buy anything.
It raises an interesting question about why mass customization has yet to go mainstream. 3D printers, crowd sourcing designs, and similar developments are frequently mentioned in the press, but the market has yet to fully develop. There are a number of hypotheses that could explain this:
1. The technology isn’t ready
The most robust customization technology, print on demand, is capable of producing retail quality goods and a number of companies have used it to manufacture unique books, cards, Tshirts, and other printed materials. Unfortunately, print on demand is mostly applied to 2D products and is unable to impact the majority of product categories (furniture, electronics, etc). Tools capable of creating dimensional objects are not quite ready yet. 3D printing and CNC milling are slow, expensive, and unrefined while laser cutters have severe limitations in the kind of parts they can produce. Until these tools become cost effective, manufacturing more complex goods is going to be very difficult.
2. The market isn’t ready
Zappos probably wouldn’t have earned a billion dollars in revenue last year if it wasn’t for Amazon paving the way over the last decade and getting customers used to buying online. No customization company has had mass appeal to the level where it became a household name, set standards, and helped the mass market understand custom manufacturing.
Custom products tend to have premium price tags. This is partly strategic, but often due to economies of scale not being reached or custom production processes that are intrinsically more expensive than the mass production techniques. Scale could help this over time, but for now it poses a serious barrier to the adoption of mass customization.
4. Manufacturing complexity
To many people a laser cutter and 3D printer are largely the same. Both machines can output similar parts, but using the wrong one for the wrong application will drain time and money. Most people couldn’t tell you how or when to use injection molding, blow molding, or rotational molding in mass production and expecting the average customer to understand the variety of mass customization technologies is unrealistic. Services that offer access to these tools are limiting their audiences to those who understands the strengths and weaknesses of each process.
5. People have taste, not training
This is a multifaceted problem. First, the tools used to design complex objects are difficult to master. Learning a pro level 3D modeling software package can take hundreds or thousands of hours. Even something simpler like a vector editing tool has a fairly steep learning curve. Second, once you understand the tools you need to know enough about engineering and production to ensure you are making something that will function. Thirdly, There is the issue of aesthetics and design. In a serious product development organization these three responsibilities are divided among three different groups of highly trained professionals. Putting the entire burden on a customer severely reduces the size of the population who could use your service.
I went to school for design, understand how these machines work, and approaching a blank canvas is still intimidating. Most people whose day to day lives don’t involve design will likely be confused and overwhelmed by the idea of creating something and taking all the steps necessary to make it happen if they are not provided a clear path or framework to follow.
7. Customization doesn’t add much value
NIKEiD, the online sneaker design service is one of the more successful and oft cited examples of mass customization. Considering how many different color combinations Nike mass produces in a season, what real value does customization add? I can probably find something close enough to what I want at a store and even if I can’t, what kind of statement can I make with sneakers? Does designing a shoe with a lime green out sole and pink laces say anything about me as a person?
8. Professional designers add tremendous value
Anyone can hum a tune, but few of us could sell a recording of our singing in the shower . We want to listen to pros and design is similar. Jonathan Ive, Paul Smith, and James Dyson are all REALLY good at what they do and their taste, talent, and training adds a great deal of value. Design is also a powerful signaling tool. Pulling out an iPhone amongst a sea of BlackBerry users says something about what you value and the way your think, for good or bad.
9. Customization is stressful
You can go into a LA-Z-BOY furniture store and customize a piece of furniture by choosing between thousands of fabric upholstery swatches. This can be fun, but also tremendously scary. You are committing thousands of dollars to something you can’t preview, but also can’t return if you are displeased. If you really want a Todd Oldham print on your couch then the flexibility of the process is a great value. If not, it is easier and safer to pick something off the show floor.
10. Customization isn’t fun
Even if creating something isn’t stressful it usually isn’t fun. Getting into a “flow” state and creating is one of the most rewarding experiences a human can have. How many customization services get close to that? I’ve tried out most mass customization services and only Swiss bag make Freitag’s F-Cut system gets close. The Build-A-Bear Workshop is another company that makes customization enjoyable. The social nature of the design process provides customers with real time feedback and suggestions from friends which is fun and helpful. Build-A-Bear also smartly makes their customization system reversible encouraging experimentation and the likelihood that customers will go home happy. Almost all services employ a checklist style, linear customization experience and offer a design tool set that is a knock-off of popular graphic tools like Photoshop. These tools are powerful, but not fun to use or easy to learn.
11. Limited design options
Most companies offering custom products let you add a graphic to an existing product, change colors, or make other minor tweaks. It’s a neat gimmick, but not anything that I would brag to friends about. Aspiring mass customizers will need to provide a certain level of value before their products are widely adopted and very few have figured out how to do so yet.
12. Pride in craftsmanship
The craft & hobby market is worth ~$30B a year in the US alone. The sale of scrapbooking materials, beading supplies, and other crafting tools and materials have generated tremendous revenues while “digital craft” services like Scrapblog, Shutterfly, Blurb, etc. have had more modest success. Much of the value in crafting is the sense of accomplishment gained by the crafter after having made something with their own hands. The digital experiences are more powerful, but not as fulfilling.
The history of the cake mix is instructive in this case. Supposedly, when cake mixes were first introduced the cook only needed to add water to the mix, but sales were flat because housewives of the day felt like their skills were being marginalized. The cake mixes were modified to require the cook to add an egg and this small change helped sales explode. This is only partially true. At the same time the cake mix companies framed the mix as only one part of the process and created books and guides on the art of cake decorating. Now the cake it self was trivial preparatory step and truly skilled cooks would bring it alive with decorative frosting and presentation.This market is massive and lucrative, but the underlying psychological factors need to be considered
Mass customization is going to happen
I don’t believe any of these twelve hypotheses are permanent barriers to adoption. If anything they are opportunities for passionate entrepreneurs who want to bring the innovation in software to the physical world.