New shoes

Source: History of the Incorporation of Cordiners in Glasgow by William Campbell, 1883

What’s new?

In a 1 July 2020 article in the magazine Additive Manufacturing, Senior Editor Stephanie Hendrixson describes how Flowbuilt Manufacturing makes customized shoes for various brands, using biometric scanning, pressure plates, 3D printing, and injection molding.  

What does it mean?

A technological idea may be around for a while, waiting for the actual technology to catch up, making the idea real. The fax machine was invented in 1843 but had to wait for advances in scanning and transmission speed to become useful in the 1980s (and to be superseded by the Internet in just a few decades). My father (a systems engineer at Bell Labs) was part of a team that developed the first useful multiplexing system for sending multiple conversations on one channel (TASI, used in the first transatlantic telephone cable); it was based on ideas that had been around for decades, but could only be implemented at the speed of conversation when transistors were invented.

Similarly, the idea of mass customization has been around for a long time. Dell was, I think, in 1984 the first personal computer manufacturer to offer the consumer the option of customizing the components of the computer, and consumers now routinely expect to be able to do that (although Dell has moved away from allowing customization on some models). Mass production keeps costs low by manufacturing identical products at a low cost, while customization of a product for the particular needs of the customer is usually done at a higher cost. The phrase “mass customization” was an oxymoron, not a real possibility, in which customization is done at a low cost.

Shoe manufacturing was originally a customized process (my fourth great grandfather John Gentle was a shoemaker in Glasgow, Scotland, and deacon of the Incorporation of Cordiners in 1808-1809). The industrial revolution changed shoe making into a mass production process. However, shoe manufacturing still involves hand work and thus most shoes sold in the US are made overseas to take advantage of lower labor costs.

Mass customization has now become more widespread. Eyewear, clothing, face masks, hearing aids, motorcycle helmets, baby ultrasounds, wedding cake toppers and horse saddles, are now made with some combination of scanning and customization. The trend is likely to continue as the component technologies and the associated processes are improving and are increasingly integrated.

For mass customization to become reality, the technology and the processes for the supply chain, manufacturing, and sales all had to evolve to the point where mass customization can be profitable for the companies and attractive for consumers. The technology includes sensors (scanners and pressure sensors in the case of shoes), software to process and integrate the resulting data into the individualized product design, and 3D printing of molds or of the product itself.

Those technologies have to be integrated with business practices. Mass customization means usually means supply chains are shortened so manufacturing may be reshored. Chuck Sanson, Flowbuilt Manufacturing’s director of business development, is quoted in the Additive Manufacturing article as saying “Personalized products are not something that you can effectively manage from 6,000 miles away.” The market must be analyzed for the potential for customization; at the same time, the product must be analyzed into modules that that will be customized or not customized (for example, will the box for shipping the item be standard or customized?). New materials may be appropriate.   Inventory management must be rethought, including relationships with suppliers, management of the inventory of customizable and noncustomizable components and handling of consumer returns. Production must be rethought as a pull system for the customized parts, which usually means a tightly integrated information system for tracking parts and products. The relationship with the final customer may be rethought to involved selling through intermediaries or direct to the customer.

What does it mean for you?

The focus has to be on what customization can add for your customers. What are the features of your product that your customers will want to design or have designed for them? At the same time, you need to consider which features can be manufactured at low cost.

The path to mass customization can be to slowly transition or to reimagine the entire process at once. Flowbuilt took the second path, being established in 2018 by its parent company Superfeet, a specialty shoe and insole manufacturer, with the task “to come up with a better way of making shoes within the United States,” but it evolved from a Superfeet project with HP that created custom-made 3D printed insoles. The customization drove the need to reshore the manufacturing to shorten the supply chain.  Flowbuilt also thought carefully about what parts of the manufacturing process could be automated and yet still remain flexible to allow small run production for diverse customers.

While I have described mass customization for consumer products such as shoes, similar changes have affected the manufacturing of other products, such as custom gears.

Where can you learn more?

An Internet search for the phrase mass customization will turn up many resources. An influential 1997 article from Harvard Business Review describes four ways to think about mass customization. One of the authors of that article, B. Joseph Pine II, wrote a 1993 book on Mass Customization, and cowrote (with James H. Gilmore) the 2000 book Markets of One, although Mr. Pine now focuses on what he calls the experience economy. A large amount of research on mass customization has been complied in the two-volume Handbook of Research in Mass Customization and Personalization.

The customer side of mass customization is related to the concept of long tail marketing, in which a company seeks to supply many diverse customer markets. The manufacturing side of mass customization is related to Industry 4.0, or smart manufacturing.

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