Today was mass customization day in the blog sphere: Two great and one interesting post on mass customization and creative customers stroke out the mass of general postings just mentioning the term. And an update on Zafu in the NYT.
Tim O'Reilly on Threadless and custom fabrication. Tim O'Reilly, master guru of Web 2.0, today posted about Threadless and why he loves this business model. Why I do not share his evaluation that Threadless is a perfect example of the Long Tail (see my comment on his post), Tim makes a good observation where this will lead us in the future:
Right now, Threadless is just making t-shirts. But custom fabrication devices like laser-cutters, water-jets, and 3D printers are currently at about the price points of typesetting machines back when desktop publishing took off in the early 80's. Even traditional manufacturing techniques can now be harnessed by small companies and individuals, who can hire overseas factories to make short runs of custom designs. How far off is a future in which the creative economy overflows the thin boundary that separates "information" from "stuff"?
We've been fascinated with this idea since Marshall Burns and James Howison gave a talk entitled Napster Fabbing at our first P2P Conference in 2001. They pointed out, quite rightly, that in a world of personal fabrication machines, stuff could be shared as easily as music is shared today.
But what would the mechanisms be by which new designs first come into play? Will they merely be copied from traditional manufacturing and brands, or will there be a new economy in which users compete in creative abandon?
I am preparing a longer review posting on user manufacturing and the new infrastructure that is just coming up to help consumers to turn their creative ideas into physical outputs (and sell those to others) – an alternative model to the today dominating mass customization model. Stay tuned for this next week or so.
But Tim's post is a summary of the idea and what will come up. Or, as he says with William Gibson's words at the beginning of his post, "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet."
Tom Evslin on the history of mass customization. Tom Evslin, a technology veteran and pioneer of many core technologies of the information age, posted in his blog today – in a comment of Tim's post – a great story on the history of mass customization.
Until today, I always paid tribute to Alvin Toffler for mentioning the concept first, who quoted (in 1970) Robert H. Anderson, at this time Head Information Systems, RAND Corporation, that "The most creative thing a person will do 20 years from now is to be a very creative consumer… Namely, you’ll be sitting there doing things like designing a suit of clothes for yourself or making modifications to a standard design, so the computers can cut one for you by laser and sew it together for you by NC machine ..."
But Tom has the following story to share:
In 1963, IBM paid me overtime for attending courses and lectures at its System Research Institute subsidiary – plus an all-expenses-paid drive into NYC. One Tuesday night the lecture was on the kind of future that computers would make possible. Those who thought about that at all thought of a Big Brother sort of world and enforced uniformity since computers liked dealing with millions of items which were all formatted just the same.
But the speaker at SRI said that computers would make mass customization possible.
“Imagine,” he said, “going to a store and seeing a dress you like (nb. no online shopping in the dark ages). The clerk takes your exact measurements but then asks if you would like any changes to the design. You say ‘I’d like the fleur de lis a little smaller, the straps a little wider, and the hem an inch higher.’ After just a short wait a machine disgorges just what you want. Computers will make it possible to undo the uniformity and conformity that began with the industrial revolution and mass production.”
Wow! Not that I bought any dresses with or without fleur de lis in those days but I was really turned on by this. Didn’t really have anyone to discuss it with because my co-workers at IBM were much older than me and not as given to bursts of enthusiasm and no one else knew what a computer was.
So why are we not all customize our dresses (or dress shirts) today? Here the third provides an answer.
Robyn Waters on Mass Customization. Business Week today posted an interview with Robyn Waters, a "Trend guru" on "spotting what is next" and former vice-president of Trend, Design, and Product Development at Target.
While I really love her work for Target and how she turned this company in place for great shopping experience and discoveries (Target's high-profile, high-revenue "design-for-all" marketing strategy, developed by Waters, is a industry benchmark), she really missed the point when asked about the which companies she recommends watching that are great in mass customization? Her answer:
"Mass customization refers to products for a mass market that are designed so customers can personalize them to their exact needs or desires.
Companies doing a wonderful job of mass customization are: The U.S. Postal Service and the www.mystamps.com site. You can design your own postage stamps...upload a photo, chose a color, a border, a denomination, pay by credit card. Jones Soda uses digital technology to customize labels. The customer uploads a photo, writes a label, selects the flavor of soda, and a case of custom-labeled soda is shipped to their door. Starbucks allows you to customize your cup. There are purported to be over 19,000 ways to order your coffee drink at Starbucks.
M&Ms allows you to select special fashion colors, and 95% of Mini Coopers are customized. Cold Stone Creamery customizes your cone with mix-ins. My Twinn is a doll that is customized to look exactly like your child. TiVo turns you into your own TV programmer. iPod gives you all the controls for your music when you want it.
I prefer the term "customer-made" to "custom-made." These examples turn a customer into a designer."
I totally share her last comment. But are the companies she quotes really good examples for mass customization worthwhile watching. I doubt this. Most of them are examples of online mass customization of the first generation. Are you really a designer of you order a latte with skimmed milk and extra cinnamon at Starbucks? Are you a designer if someone create a doll that looks exactly like you? Is a custom soda label the future of customization? Well, then I should stop writing this blog.
Tom's 1963 quote of mass customization of much more insightful and futuristic -- almost 45 years ago! I just mention this as it are exactly this kind of examples that make it difficult to bring mass customization forward and shift it out of the niche of custom embroidery etc. If forward looking thinkers like Robyn Waters use these kind of old examples and narrow ideas, then it will be difficult to motivate other managers to really see a sustainable business model behind the concept.
Update: One post that I just found today: The New York Times has a good review of Zafu.com, the mass customization alternative I wrote about some while ago. While the article in general praises the Zafu service, it remarks that it does not weigh heavily enough a user’s brand preference. But the label of a jeans is a as a big factor as the fit. The article also comments on the increasing use of other personalization services, like gift-finders or recommendation engines. Nothing new, but finally getting implemented.