Anne Stevens, vice president of North American vehicle operations at Ford Motor Co. (Dearborn, MI), referred to mass customization during her recent keynote speech at the 2002 Assembly Technology Expo in Rosemont, IL. According to Stevens, "customization" means making products in small lots or batches with volumes as little as one.

"It is the antithesis of everything that mass production is," Stevens told a crowd of ATExpo attendees. "We have no choice other than to believe in customer choices."

To cope with the demands of a fast-changing marketplace, Stevens believes manufacturing engineers must learn to think differently and embrace the concept of mass customization. As market niches continue to narrow, she warns that customization will become increasingly critical.

Mass customization refers to the design, production, marketing and delivery of customized products and services on a mass basis. It means that customers can select, order and receive a specially configured product--often choosing from hundreds of product options to meet their individual needs. Build-to-order is a common synonym for mass customization.

"The ability of the manufacturing organization to be highly flexible and responsive to customer demands is an essential ingredient for mass customization," says Richard Bourke, principal consultant at Bourke Consulting Associates (Pasadena, CA). He urges companies to make the transition from a "make to stock" mentality to a "build to order" environment.

According to Bourke, who recently wrote a white paper on the subject for QAD Inc. (Carpinteria, CA), the goals of mass customization are entirely consistent with the objective of lean manufacturing: produce a high quality product in the shortest order fulfillment time at the lowest cost. It is based on pull methods rather than push execution. In other words, customer demand triggers the manufacturing process, rather than a forecast and a master schedule based on the forecast.

"The methods of mass production must be replaced by the methods more appropriate to mass customization," says Bourke. "A prime example is lot sizes in mass production where large quantities are necessary to get lower unit costs from production runs. In contrast, one of the basic concepts of mass customization is to produce in small lot sizes to gain more scheduling flexibility and speed throughput in the plant."