With this posting, I will start a new series of interviews with key persons from the mass customization and personalization community. I plan to publish a new interview each month or so. The idea is to provide you first-hand access to the experiences of some of the leading entrepreneurs in our field.
The interview series will start with an industry where the benefits of customization seem to be very obvious, but where the level of application is lacking behind the level of available technology: custom footwear. And when talking about custom footwear, no one is a better partner for dialog than Sergio Dulio. Sergio is know to me as one (if not the) world's foremost authoritis on mass customization of footwear (see his bio at the end of this posting):
Sergio, how did an aerospace engineer come down to earth to revolutionize the footwear business?
I think it has to do somehow with my “roots”. Being born in Vigevano, a town which lived of shoe making until the 1960s and that now lives of shoe technologies, it was inevitable that sooner or later I would get involved. I started almost 20 years ago with CAD systems for shoe design, then worked with machines. More and more I build experience with shoe design and manufacturing processes. Mass customization is my latest passion.
What are the three greatest achievements we have made so far with regard to mass customization of shoes?
I would say that the main achievements deal all with “consciousness”: First, consumers are becoming more conscious -- and demanding -- of how important it is for them to have the right shoes for their feet and to find producers that really care about them.
Second, shoe producers are becoming more conscious of the added value that selling made-to-order customized shoes can generate for them. And eventually the consciousness, among consumers and producers, that technology, in particular information technologies, is available to make the mass customization paradigm happen.
Do you see any upcoming trends with regard to new players, technologies, markets, etc. of mass customization in footwear?
I actually see two parallel trends: Outsiders who are fascinated by the idea of modernizing what they perceive to be an old fashioned business like shoemaking and who are starting new ventures for MC shoes. I would call this a hexogen approach to shoe MC. In parallel, I see an endogen movement by traditional shoemakers who realize the potential of MC and are in increasing numbers considering projects of this kind. Form the technology standpoint, I see a progressive consolidation of all the major enablers that are needed to support this business.
What are the best (your favorite) examples of mass customization in the footwear industry?
I would give you three examples: the MiAdidas initiative that I would name “knowledge and German discipline” for the profoundly thought and structured approach how Adidas applies the MC concept to demanding shoes like the sport ones.
Then Selve that I would define “courage and determination” for having tackled the challenging sector of lady fashionable shoes and for not having given up despite the sometimes insurmountable problems a young and small start up company may have.
And last but not least the American OTABO that I would name “going against the odds” for having decided to start a footwear manufacturing business in the USA when all the other shoemakers had fled away to the famous low labor cost countries
What are the main challenges still ahead? And what are the limits of mass customization of footwear, when does it make no sense?
I believe that the basic technical “building blocks” are all available and in their right place. Forerunners have taken advantage of that. What is still missing is a widespread acceptance of the concept both by the producers and also by consumers. Perhaps an “education campaign” aimed at consumers would help. Honestly, if the concept of MC applied to footwear is clearly defined and well understood, I see no real limits to it and very few circumstances in which it makes no sense.
Apparently, mass customization of footwear is not for everyone. What questions should managers ask themselves when considering mass customization?
I do not completely agree on the fact that MC in footwear is not for everyone. Potentially it could be, from the operational and technical standpoint, adopted by all shoe companies. It is only a question of determination in changing, at least in some parts, the traditional organization of the enterprise.
The questions managers should ask themselves are: Do we know and do we care about our consumers? Are we conscious that caring about them could give an added value to our business? If the answers to these questions are positive, than companies are fit for MC.
Why are so many established footwear companies reluctant to enter the mass customization business – even if they seem to loose more ground to Asian manufacturers each year?
I believe it has to do with “ignorance”, in the sense that they seem to ignore what the business model can bring and they are then afraid by the technical difficulties; I am convinced that the more they will know about what MC can bring and how it can contribute to differentiate their offer, the more they will start to seriously consider it.
What is your personal (recent) contribution to work on these challenges?
I would define it “spreading the Gospel”, in workshops and conferences, in contacts with companies, trying to help them understanding on one side the technical challenges not be underestimated and on the other the benefits that could derive from the adoption of MC.
I recently have been actively involved in many field tests with real shoes and real consumers, which convinced me even further that the efforts are worth it. Last but not least I am working, together with Professor Boer, with whom I shared my experience in coordinating the EUROShoE project, at book precisely on the subject of mass customization and footwear.
One question I am sometimes asking myself is why am I so attracted by mass customization and footwear? I think it is the fact that it conjugates the fascination of tradition and well made crafts with the combination of latest technologies to obtain these products in a cost effective way.
To conclude: What is, in general and beyond your industry, the greatest mass customization offering ever – either one that is already existing or that you would like to get in the future?
The greatest offering I don’t think it exists yet. It will be there when we will enter the customized shoe shops, go through the measurement and selection process with no need to testing samples, knowing that the shoes will come in time and will be good at the first go. And knowing that my shoes will certain be “made in…my country” and “made with love for the product”. Perhaps a bit utopistic, but certainly not unrealistic.
Brief bio of Sergio Dulio
Sergio Dulio, by training a master in aerospace engineering from the Polytechnic of Milan, joined IBM in 1984 as a member of their first technical support team to the 3D CAD/CAM application CATIA. During this time, he also got in initial contact with the footwear world introducing some of first families of shoe specific CAD / CAM applications. Later, he worked for ATOM, one of the leading companies in the field of shoe machinery, as an expert of leather cutting technology.
In the past decade, he coordinated a number of innovative projects for SINTESI, a footwear research consortium with the Italian National Research Council ITIA–CNR. In 2001 he was appointed by ITIA as the technical coordinator of the EUROShoE project, one of the largest EU funded projects in the footwear field, with 33 partners and a total budget of 17 million €, aimed at the development of technologies for the design and manufacturing of customized shoes. In 2003 he gets a contract with CNR – ITIA to organize, install and activate a Design and Mass Customization Laboratory in Vigevano (the capital of Italian shoe manufacturing), where a pilot factory for the production of customized shoes has been put in operation.
He currently works as a technical consultant for ASSOMAC (Association of shoe machinery producers) and ANCI (Italian association of footwear manufacturers) and helps private entrepreneurs to master the challenges of mass customization in footwear.
Contact him at email@example.com or Tel. +39 0381 905827, Cell +39 335 6664251
Previous postings on mass customization of footwear: