Why Mass Customization Isn’t Mainstream

by Joseph Flaherty on May 25, 2009

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.

3. Cost

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.

6. Intimidation

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.

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]
  • http://www.shapeways.com/blog joris

    Isn't the use case of paramount importance here? Substitute piano playing for mass customization and it would work also. However for some reason playing pianos has been rather robust over the past several hundred years. Is the end result not the determinant? If I am not able to conceive of or come up with a better bag then why should I make one. But, if a more comfortable bag is something which is an outcome I would want, then surely I would take the requisite steps?

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty


    I don't think piano playing would be a good comparison e.g. the tech is robust, costs are low, its a valued social skill, etc. It is intimidating and hard to learn, but otherwise different.

    You are right about use cases, but there are limitations. I was talking to the founder/CEO of a customization company and he was talking about how lame the custom bag companies were and how he wanted to be able to design functionality. He had ideas of what his ideal bag would be, but he would have had to source the fabric, learn to sew (or pay a job shop), etc. It would be a huge time investment for a rather incremental gain.

  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    9. Customization is stressful.

    I would add that choice can actually make us less likely to make a decision rather than more likely to; I face this in all kinds of fields, including office equipment. In the last two weeks, I've spent vast amounts of time looking at phone and copier systems for Seliger + Associates and found the experience mostly enervating—and that's with a relatively small sample set!

    Trying to not just evaluate a large number of products, but to customize them as well, isn't something I'm willing to do for anything save things that are important to me, like books. And the literature on this issue in fairly vast—see, for example, Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, Dan Ariely's Predictably Irrational, and Tim Harford's The Logic of Life.

    Together, those might help explain some of the social issues with mass customization.

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    I totally agree. It is sort of like when Steve Jobs returned to apple and mercilessly pruned the product portfolio. A home/pro laptop and a home/pro desktop down from dozens of hard to parse models. “The Paradox of Choice” is another great book on overwhelming choices and how they can stifle decision making.

    The key is a quote from Joseph Pine who wrote the book on customization. “People don't want millions of options, they just want the exact product they want” Customizers shouldn't get caught up in the billions of options they can offer, but rather making the customer feel creative and satisfied with their product.

  • http://blog.seliger.com jseliger

    “People don't want millions of options, they just want the exact product they want”

    This is good advice. I feel the same way about books, but the problem is that you often don't know what the exact book you want to read is until after you've read it. Certainly that was my experience with The Name of the Rose.

  • http://www.shapeways.com/blog joris

    I agree, with the “rather incremental gain” this is a huge issue.

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty

    I think those gains and even greater ones can be achieved and made commercial, but I don't think many companies have hit the step function in terms of value creation yet. I think Shapeways and Ponoko have certainly hit that value creation level for the serious hobbyist. Access to expensive capital machines had always been a nightmare of RFQ's and you guys made it as easy as shopping at Amazon. Now the challenge is to design products that deliver the same value to mass market consumers.

  • Richard Sewell

    It seems to me that most of these examples aren't exactly customisation. Or, at least, aren't what I think of as customisation.

    Services like Shapeways and Ponoko are really about creation – the user designs the whole thing, and the service does the making. And, as you say, that's hard for a user to exploit without expending a lot of design effort.

    What I imagine when I think about customisation is something more like (for example) custom-fitted clothing, where the overall design is taken care of by the manufacturer but each pair of trousers is actually made for the measurements of a particular customer. That's the kind of business that can (in principle) exploit the new manufacturing technologies to do a better job in the old markets.

    I am ashamed to say I can't find any good examples outside of clothing. There seem to be a bunch of custom-shirt and custom-jeans companies, who are presumably using laser cutting and old-fashioned sewing, but nothign else. Are they out there somewhere ?

    Do you know if anyone is actually doing any of that ?

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty


    I think it becomes an issue of semantics at some point, though the issues still pertain to your definition of customization. Take the company ProperCloth. They are mass customizing dress shirts. They are nice shirts and the site is well designed, but are also more expensive than normal and clothing is an area most men would like to leave to pros. I don't think each problem will apply to every product category. It is just an interesting list to consider when designing customization services, however you define them!

  • Richard Sewell

    I agree, and I certainly don't want to start an argument over definitions.

    But I do think that the problems you've described will never really go away – the customer will never become the designer. If these technologies are going to become mainstream, it will be because business models arise in which the customer can do some useful personalisation without having to do design work.

    I just can't imagine what those business models might be, and I wish I could.

  • http://www.replicatorinc.com Joseph Flaherty


    They might not go away permanently, but I think solutions like the Spore Creature Creator go a long way to mitigate them. That is a brilliantly designed CAD program that allows a total novice to create something with no training, but also allows a pro to create amazing objects that the designers of the program never imagined (http://bit.ly/10nrXs). I think all of the barriers i mentioned can be similarly addressed via design or product management.

  • http://www.betamarker.com/users/classiccars Suze

    This just adds so many more choices for the consumer, that it could be overkill. You already have to choose size, color, options, etc.

  • http://www.2collab.com/user:jennlohn/profile Jenn

    I have read studies that suggest that consumers have way too many choices these days, and it can sometimes negatively affect their purchase, or lack thereof due to too many choices. Customization may add another layer to that.

  • http://www.galaxyhandbags.com/ gucci bag

    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.

Previous post:

Next post: