Customized jewelry maker Paragon Lake hosted a panel on Mass Customization last Thursday and assembled an interesting group of participants:
Sung Park – Umagination Labs
Sung Park was introduced as the “Godfather of Mass Customization”. In the mid 90′s he developed a company that could scan a cutomer’s body and use that data to customize clothing for a perfect fit. The company was acquired by Levi’s and Park now works at a creative think tank.
Matt Lauzon – Paragon Lake
Matt is the co-founder/president of Paragon Lake that is currently offering their jewelry customization service in 43 jewelry stores across the country. Matt had a great comment about “content” being important in the customization process. Most jewelry customers don’t want to start from a blank canvas, instead they want to tweak an existing design. Too many customization companies ignore this, providing a simple Flash configurator and hoping for the best, rather than providing a scaffolded starting point.
Sarah McIlroy – Fashion Playtes
Fashion Playtes is targeting the tween girl market, providing a service to design and manufacture clothing on demand. The website was just recently launched, but early sales are encouraging. The relatively low price (~$20/garment) makes this an affordable risk for customers.
Micah Rosenbloom – Brontes Technology
Brontes is a great example of medical applications for 3D printing. Using their tool a dentist can scan a patients mouth, create an exact CAD model of the teeth, and have crowns, bridges or other dental work made to order. They are inserting new technology into an old manufacturing process. The photo below shows a set of the 3D printed teeth.
Monika Desai – Sole Envie
Sole Envie is planning on launching a custom fashion shoe service towards the end of the year.
Andrew Callen - Corporate Casuals
Andrew’s company started out as a contract manufacturer of embroidered goods. In the past he would manufacture 20,000 baseball caps at a time, but as manufacturing moved overseas, order size shrank dramatically. His company optimized their processes making it easier to get the customer order to the production floor which made smaller order sizes economical.
Wendy Cebulba – VistaPrint
VistaPrint is one of the largest mass customizers with $500MM in yearly revenues. Their core strength and focus is manufacturing optimization and process control rather that tools for expression. To that end Wendy brought an uncut sheet of business cards from their production line and used it to explain their processes.
Some thoughts on the event:
Three types of Mass Customization
Sung Park started the evening off by breaking mass customization into three broad categories:
1. Digital Front End/Digital Back End
This describes companies like Amazon that serve unique pages based on your interests in a completely digital fashion.
2. Digital Front End/Physical Customization and Assembly
Most current mass customization companies would fall into this bucket. You design something with a web based cad interface and then some factory produces it using modified traditional manufacturing processes. Think NikeID, Fashion Playtes, or Paragon Lake.
3. Sensor based Front End/CAD-CAM Back End
This is a more passive experience best illustrated by Brontes. In their case a sensor makes a model of your mouth and then automated equipment (a 3D printer) produces a physical copy of the scan. There is very little human involvement or intervention.
On Returns: When asked how they dealt with returns a member of the audience who had worked for a footwear customization services said that the baseline for returns was 11%. The return rate for customized shoes was 2%. However, in his opinion the return rate was not a sign of customer satisfaction, but the fact that the customization site didn’t advertise the return policy.
Terrible, Terrible Puns: A fun part of mass customization is way it compels otherwise normal writers to use terrible puns people use when describing companies. Brontes Systems said they are “Taking Dentistry out of the stone age” a reference to the plaster molding process used by non-digital providers. In the past I’ve seen articles describing Paragon Lake in a similar way: “Polishes a gem of an idea“. The best/worst description has to be of custom bra maker Zyrra, “Their cups runneth over“.
On Mass Customization as Market Research: A great question from the audience was if any of the companies thought about using their mass customization offering as a market research tool. See what a small percentage of lead users design and then mass produce similar items for the less creative masses. It is an interesting idea that none of the companies had taken up yet.
“Mass Customization is a Technology not an Industry”: My only criticism of the event was the lack of focus on the business issues surrounding mass customization. Is it just a niche? What are the economic or technical barriers for wider adoption? Does mass customization lead to better margins? More repeat orders? What technological developments are on the horizon? Is it just a specialized manufacturing process with limited potential applications? The diversity of the panel made it hard to generalize and three of the companies have yet to launch/are in beta with limited data to draw conclusions.