Remember years ago when Burger King introduced the slogan, “Have It Your Way”? Recently, the company’s marketers have brought back this ditty from the ’70 in hopes that consumers who want to customize their fast-food orders will once again help BK take market share from the hamburger behemoth, McDonalds.
Although customization may seem a natural for food preparation, it is also in vogue in the manufacturing industry for customers who are willing to pay extra or wait longer for their special order. And we’re beginning to see a new age of “mass customization,” in which more manufacturers are tailoring their goods and services to customers’ needs.
“Mass customization is more than just a manufacturing process, logistic system or marketing strategy,” says Erick Schonfeld in his article, “The Customized, Digitized, Have-It-Your-Way Economy,” (Fortune, Sept. 28, 1998). “It could well be the organizing principle of business in the next century, just as mass production was the organizing principle in this one.”
The desire for customized colors on products has been growing over the last several years. “I’m convinced that mass customization will be a new paradigm, with opportunities for those who are innovative,” says James Davis, senior vice president and general manager at GretagMacbeth (New Windsor, NY), a color-measurement instrument manufacturer whose products are helping its customers meet their customers’ demands for more color choices.
Mass customization is already being done at many plants, thanks to sophisticated parts-tracking software and automated finishing systems. Unfortunately, unlike Burger King where the burger costs the same whether you get it “your way” or not, customized products are often more expensive. Manufacturers have to develop innovative production processes to reduce costs. For example, at BMW’s Spartanburg, SC, plant, car bodies are being painted in the order that the purchase order was received. The first car down the line might be white, followed by two red, one blue, one green, another blue, etc. The company developed a piggable piping system that eliminates the need to flush out paint lines with every color change.
Customization may also bring a higher environmental price tag. This month’s article, “Navistar’s Road to a ‘Green’ Finish,” describes the truck maker’s efforts to reduce hazardous air pollutants in its basecoat and clearcoat systems, necessitated because Navistar uses about 1,000 paint formulations to meet individual customer requirements. Each year, about 200 new colors are requested, resulting in a palette of more than 6,000 colors over the last several years. Is this customization in the extreme or a new trend in manufacturing?
Customization may be a production challenge, but companies are going to great efforts to provide it. Fortune’s Schonfeld says mass customization requires continual dialogue with customers and results in the ultimate customer-service ethic. With this in mind, maybe your company should investigate how to increase the customization of its products or services. In the next century, it may be the road to survival.