Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 5 (May 2001)

A Re-industrial Revolution

By Marshall Burns

A lot of manufacturers are excited about customization these days. Everybody wants to get on the "mass customization" bandwagon. But let's take a look at what it means.

"Customization" is rooted in mass production. It means taking an existing product and tweaking it to suit a selected niche market, or even an individual customer. "Mass customization" may involve swappable modules that allow for almost limitless configurations of a product.

But customization does not satisfy customers' needs be cause it starts with a product instead of a person. Satisfaction comes from starting with the individual and creating a new product specifically for him or her.

This process used to be impractical because the economies of scale of mass production made it far less expensive to manufacture products in huge quantities. But digital technologies are quickly changing this.

Digital technologies will soon provide the same economies of scale to small, local manufacturers. The economy of digital manufacturing comes from the proliferation of technology, instead of from the mass replication of identical products. Digital product delivery will soon allow products to be made economically one-at-a-time for each individual customer, as was done before the industrial revolution.

Before the industrial revolution, there was no such thing as customization. Quill pens, swords, and chariots were crafted individually for their users. Artisans were selected based on their perceived ability to create the desired product. The artisan was commissioned to create a product based on requirements stated by the customer.

There was no term for this style of preindustrial product development; it was simply how things got made. Today it survives in the custom design of Saville Row suits, Beverly Hills mansions, and Air Force fighter jets. It also survives for more mundane products that can't be mass produced, such as floral arrangements and haircuts.

The key is to start with a single customer. I propose a new term for this individualized style of product development-"customation." Rather than start with an existing product and customIZE it, we start with the needs of a customer and customATE a product from scratch.

Customation is a collaborative process of product development uniquely geared to the needs of a single customer. In customation, there is no product before the customer walks in the door with his or her ideas for it. The shopping decision for the customer shifts from product to process. Instead of shopping for a product, the customer shops for the capability to have his or her product needs met.

Think of buying a new suit. Customization means choosing a suit from the rack and having its seams adjusted to fit your body. Customation means choosing fabrics and having a suit created that makes your desired personal statement.

Rockwell International did not start with a standard space ship design and customize it for NASA to make the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle was created from scratch based on specifications developed in collaboration between engineers at NASA and Rockwell (now Boeing).

Plastic surgery is a profession that can only work by customation. A plastic surgeon works with existing bone and tissue structures, and with the desires of the patient, to create a unique design. In twenty-first-century manufacturing, all products will be as personal to the customer as plastic surgery.

Industrial manufacturing revolves around tooling, the molds and other equipment used to replicate a product de sign. The economies of scale of mass production amortize tooling to make products affordable to the general population. This is the basis of the extraordinary standard of living of much of the modern world.

Digital product delivery enables even better economies of scale by proliferating the production technology in stead of the products. Consider music as an example. The widespread availability of computers with sound cards and Internet access allows musicians to distribute music without incurring the high cost of "pressing" an album.

Just as sound cards output music from a digital description, today we have computer peripherals that can output physical products. Often called "rapid prototyping" devices, they are much more exciting than that name implies. They are used primarily to make models and prototypes, but future generations of this technology will make fully functional products. I call these devices digital fabricators, or "fabbers" for short.

Today we are generally limited to "fabbing" in plastics and a few kinds of metals and ceramics. The variety of materials available is adequate for the purposes of many commercial products, except that they can only fab one material at a time. Few commercial products are made from only one material, so for production manufacturing, fabbers must work in multiple materials.

Another limitation of today's digital fabbers is working mechanisms. Most commercial products have assemblies of moving parts and/or electronics. Fabbing working mechanisms without assembly has already been demonstrated, but this capability needs to improve in tolerances and in ease of use before it can break into the mainstream.

Ease of use is another problem. Many fabbers today work with toxic chemicals or messy powders that are not suitable for an office environment.

Another barrier, of course, is cost. Today's fabbers can be justified in high-value applications by the months and kilodollars they can take out of project budgets. But for fabbers to be used in one-of-a-kind manufacturing, their costs need to come down substantially.

Finally, fabbing needs to get faster. Taking months out of a product development schedule, you can wait over night or a few days for a fabber to do its magic. But when customating a single product for an individual customer, you need a much quicker turnaround.

Improvements with respect to these limitations of fabber technologies are under development in hundreds of laboratories around the world. Within 10 to 20 years, we'll have fast, push-button fabbing in multiple materials with working mechanisms and built-in electronics. These "personal factories" will sell for under $10,000 and decline in price from there.

We can learn from the music industry's battles over digital distribution. Some musicians have reacted fearfully and sued fans who share their music digitally. Others are embracing technology as an opportunity to escape the shackles of recording contracts and forge new, more direct relationships with their fans. Musicians feeling mistreated by record companies now have new options.

Designers of physical products, on the other hand, have been ignored for so long they don't even know they are mistreated. Quick, name the designer of your favorite living room chair! Who created the layout of the dashboard that made you fall in love with your car? When was the last time your children composed a fan letter to the designer of a toy that made them smile, or laugh, or think?

Later in the twenty-first century, you will know who designed your living room furniture as well as you know who designed your hair style because you will buy it the same way. A furniture showroom won't house buyable inventory, but an exhibition of previous masterpieces. You might get ideas from the pieces on display, but the designer will sit down with you to customate your own personal living room collection.

Manufacturers will become networks of small, agile facilities distributed to serve their local communities.

Already, you can buy a toy on the Internet and know exactly who designed it. At, the designer can be you, or your child. But if you only have an idea or a sketch, proprietor Karl Denton will work with you to customate your toy. Your design is then digitally fabbed and shipped to you. If you like the results, you know exactly whom to thank. (See "Toys 4 U" on pg. 54.)

Instead of selling on the Internet, provides software to local jewelers to allow them to customate designs in the store. Currently, design data is transmitted to DigitalJeweler for fabbing, but the software could just as well be used with an in-store fabber.

If you really want them to, Toy Builders or DigitalJeweler can customize an existing design to your taste. That is your option as the customer. But for little additional cost, time, or difficulty, your product can grow from scratch from your own ideas, needs, and whims.

From this start in toys and jewelry, tomorrow's fabbers will allow designers to customate your lawn furniture, your tennis racket, your guitar, and one day, even your car.

In twenty-first-century manufacturing, the product designer is no longer a faceless worker in a distant corporation separated by layers of wholesale and retail distribution. With customation, the designer is the manufacturer.

Marshall Burns Ph.D. runs Ennex Corp oration, a developer of digital product de livery technologies ( He credits K. Ravi Kumar for several of the ideas presented here. The word "customate" arose in a conversation with Ping Fu of Raindrop Geomagic.