Mass Customization of Highly Configurable Products

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Mass Customization of Highly Configurable Products: Designing, Selling and Producing “Simple” Products discusses the challenges that mass customization places on manufacturing companies. Describes how customization makes seemingly “simple” products complex to design, sell and produce.Please enjoy the free Executive Summary below, or click the report title above to download the full PDF (free of charge, no registration required).

Executive Overview

Imagine walking into a car showroom and saying “I want the late model sedan, but please give it to me with 4 more inches of legroom in the front, the tachometer moved to the left of the dash, and with an additional trunk release lever on the passenger side”. What you would find is that the automotive industry, while they offer many features and options on their products, has significant limitations in providing truly customized products. But these types of requests are commonplace for highly configurable products like windows, doors, kitchen or bath cabinets, office furniture and even some industrial equipment like hydraulic valves. It seems counter-intuitive, but the process of selling, designing, and producing what appear to be “simple” products becomes surprisingly complex when manufacturers introduce high levels of customization. And demand for customization is on the increase.

As Pine, Pepper and Rodgers said in a Harvard Business Review article in 1995, “Customers … do not want more choices. They want exactly what they want – when, where, and how they want it … ”. This comment highlighted the increasing demand for products that are highly tailored to meet specific customer demands. This concept provided the motivation for many manufacturers to re-engineer sales and marketing processes to offer more customized products to their customers. The article highlighted increased production flexibility and more advanced design tools as key enablers of this concept. But the ability for manufacturers to meet demands for highly customized products, sometimes known as “mass customization”, varies greatly depending on the company’s ability to bridge the gap between selling a customized product and being able to produce it rapidly and cost effectively. Some industries are delivering mass customized products today, but those that do are struggling with manual and inefficient processes to bring together the configured sales process and the design and production of the configured item.

This paper explores opportunities for manufacturers to improve their competitiveness and profitability based on their ability to effectively provide customized products – products that can be delivered in a large number of variations or configurations – at cost levels comparable to mass production. The paper tries to answer the following questions:

  • What challenges must manufacturers overcome in order to provide world-class performance in selling and delivering customized products?
  • How can manufacturers provide customers with seemingly infinite flexibility in product choices and still keep their margins in check?
  • How can manufacturers turn these capabilities into more deals won, and deals won at better margins?
  • How can manufacturers improve their overall throughput and shorten the delivery cycle for mass customized products?
  • How can manufacturers design and manage products in a way that streamlines and automates the customization effort once the product is ordered?

To explore the answer to these questions, we will review the lifecycle of two very different products. The first product will be a new car, arguably a product with complex engineering, and one that is available with many different features and options. The second will be a new picture window for a living room, perhaps to let us look at our new car in the driveway. The results will surprise many people as we find that while the design of the automobile is complex, there are also many complexities for manufacturers that produce products like windows that defy their simple appearance. In fact, these complexities reach past the design cycle into the order cycle, where customization to specific customer requests transitions from validating and pricing the order to designing, producing and delivering the requested product. We will highlight some very complex and difficult challenges in selling, designing and producing customized versions of these products that have a seemingly infinite number of end configurations, and point out improvement opportunities to allow manufacturers of these products to become more competitive and profitable.