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Is mass customization the future of Australian manufacturing

June 3, 2013 • Technology

In an era where consumers are more assertive in stating what they like and do not like in products, there is a greater need for manufacturers to modify their processes in order to keep up with the demands of the market.

Image courtesy of Pixomar / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Pixomar / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Consumers are now able to specify their preferences, down to the smallest of details. For instance, if you cannot find your perfect shoe in the color and height you like, you can have one custom-made. There will always be a vendor who could supply a shopper’s needs, or address their whims.

In this day and age, consumers have more choices now. If one store doesn’t have it, they can easily skip to the next one, and the next, until they get what they’re looking for. And with the rise in online shopping sites, buyers are now able to purchase what they want by just a simple click, from anywhere in the world.

It seems the days of mass production are slowly coming to a standstill—or at least employing mass production alone as an approach to manufacturing is a thing of the past.

According to Swee Mak, CSIRO’s Director of Future Manufacturing National Research Flagship, a trend towards so-called ‘mass customization’ has emerged over the last couple of decades, which would cause the society to rethink the established ideas of how things are made.

“Unlike the era of mass production where quite often choice is dictated by the manufacturer, “mass customisation” is a response to consumer’s demand for far greater control over the features of products that they wish to buy,” said Mak, in an article published on the CSIRO news blog.

“These days consumers are increasingly able to specify the design and features of products that they want, including functional and aesthetic features of cars, bicycles, shoes, clothes and computers.”

The challenge now, according to Mak, is how manufacturers can utilize mass customization in producing goods and services that would satisfy an individual customer’s needs, while at the same time still benefitting from the efficiency of mass production, in which product uniformity is a key feature.

Mak asks if in this new context, when manufacturers need to excel in producing relatively low volume with high value, is there a need to rethink the very notion of a factory?

“Meeting the challenge of mass customisation may require a rethink of the very nature of factories. How do we design factories when the product is no longer uniform and where profitability is potentially derived from making many small batches of different products rather than large batches of fewer products?”

He says that while robotics and automation have played significant roles in lifting efficiencies for high volume operations of repetitive tasks, these innovations are still not capable in handling a large variety of complex tasks.

However, technologies such as additive manufacturing, assistive automation and flexible scalable intelligent processing might be the businesses’ answers to low volume high value manufacturing.

“These technologies, combined with customer-centric design and agile business systems potentially enable manufacturing firms to effectively and economically customise their product offerings to meet specific customer needs,” says Mak.

Alternatively, the manufacturing industry expert says networks of firms can work in an environment where they can share equipment and capability.

“This is not dissimilar to the way tech companies share information in precincts or where clusters of firms make various components that are assembled at an integrating facility within a manufacturing precinct.”

Mak emphasizes that while technology can contribute substantially to the efficiency of a low volume high value manufacturing process, agile manufacturing is equally about skills, business models, supply chain partnerships and how a firm interfaces with its customers.

“There will be a greater focus on a better understanding of supply chains, smarter collaboration and partnerships, and increasing agility in how a firm can customise its offering to meets customer needs and still manufacture efficiently. This could well be one future scenario for manufacturing in Australia.”

 

 

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