Is Mass Customization In Your Future?

What is the future of manufacturing in the United States? Many people who think about such things point to a slow but steady migration from mass production to mass customization across a broad spectrum of manufacturing operations.

 

What is the future of manufacturing in the United States? Many people who think about such things point to a slow but steady migration from mass production to mass customization across a broad spectrum of manufacturing operations.

Granted, it is a movement that exists in various degrees, but we have seen this trend manifested in many of the precision machined parts making shops covered in Production Machining. Ironically, most of these shops don’t realize they are participating in this future trend.

Think about it this way: How many of you are investigating, investing in or working toward making your operation more flexible? My bet is most of you are applying lean manufacturing techniques, quick-change tooling and workholding strategies, automation, production planning for family-of-parts runs and other ways of reducing door-to-door throughput time in the shop.

Mass customization, while on the surface sounds contradictory, is in many ways the direction that metalworking manufacturing is moving. The idea is to make the right things at the right time and get them where they are needed. That’s the customization part, and it’s an important aspect of preserving manufacturing in our country.

I think the national eyeglasses chain, LensCrafters, is a prime example of mass customization. Its tagline, “your glasses in about an hour,” may be more revealing of a future for manufacturing than it seems on the surface.

In hundreds of labs located across the nation, these guys have figured out how to create “on demand” manufacturing of individually discrete products in mass quantities. Even though virtually no two lens prescriptions are the same, they make thousands, maybe millions of eyeglasses a year—each in about an hour.

The process starts with a prescription—in our world, a drawing. This blueprint is generated by LensCrafters’ own doctors or it can be brought to the lab from somewhere else much like one would use a job shop. In about an hour, the raw stock in the form of a blank lens is ground precisely to match the prescription, mounted (assembled) into frames and delivered to the customer. Now, how can a foreign eyeglasses maker compete with that model?

Moreover, I see LensCrafters’ business model as one to which other manufacturers can aspire. It’s not only about how fast something can be made; it’s about making specifically what the customer wants in a timely manner.

It is obvious that the preservation of manufacturing in the United States is predicated on being able to do things that competitive manufacturers cannot do cost effectively. There is a big advantage to being geographically close to the marketplace—in spite of globalization—in part because the economies of scale on which mass production is built come into play much less in mass customization.

For example, we’re already seeing machine shops being set up in hospitals or near them so surgeons can implant artificial hips, knees and other replacement parts that are custom made for the patient. A CT scan generates a 3D model that, in turn, is used to create a tool path for final shaping of an implant. Like LensCrafters, pre-machined blanks for the implant are ready for a final shaping to match the patient exactly.

I see mass customization as a goal to move toward. It’s going to be different for each industry. One-offs are an example, but so are manufacturing families of parts such as bone screws or hydraulic couplings in quantities.

Most metalworking shops have seen historical lot-size volumes decrease while tolerance demands, price pressures, delivery and product life cycles challenge the “way we’ve always done it.” It’s important for precision machined parts makers to understand that there is a place for them in the mass-customization movement, and defining that place for their business is strategically critical for staying in business.