While many people might credit Henry Ford with the creation of the assembly line, it was actually one of his employees, Charles Sorensen, who “examined the relationship between people, machines, tooling, and products and organized them to achieve a continuous flow of production”, according to an article by Daniel Theobald, published today on Robotics and Automation News.
Sorensen’s innovation – albeit in Ford’s employ – could be seen as the first example of a cyber-physical system which optimised, indeed launched, a new era of mass manufacturing which emphasised efficiency and productivity.
Sorensen’s assembly line enabled Ford to build a Model T car in two-and-a-half hours instead of the 12 it had previously taken – without compromising quality, and possibly even improving it.
Since then, and all throughout the various “industrial revolutions” – however many you want to count – manufacturing techniques have evolved and delivered ever-greater efficiencies and productivity rates.
It’s quite remarkable how a modern factory can output such large numbers of whatever it is making. It’s what has made so many complex, manufactured goods so cheap to buy.
If you look at any manufactured product in your typical household today, the complexity involved in designing and making that thing is actually immense, and you’d think it should really cost a lot more to buy. But you also know, almost instinctively, that it’s mass manufacturing that has enabled the producer to provide it at a very low price.
Beyond the cost of the materials, which tend to be bought in bulk, you’re really not paying a lot more for what might be considered commodity items.
For products produced by famous brands, you may be paying a premium, but even there, you tend to be paying a small portion of the immense cost of research and development, not to mention the entirely new materials and components invented or at least innovated for the items.
Such enormous investments, one could argue, is only made possible because of mass manufacturing, or at least mass-market demand for the product. In other words, the large number of people buying the same product allows for the economies of scale in manufacturing and the supply.
With the emergence of a new type of consumer, one who wants more individualisation of products, mass customisation is becoming more widespread.
Currently, the application of mass customisation is more prevalent in the printing industry, whether it’s printing magazines and brochures or printing logos and art onto apparel.
That’s what might be called “2D printing”, in that it’s flat to all intents and purposes, and generally uses inks of various types. Some apparel manufacturers, including Adidas, have shown how 3D printing techniques can be used to provide customers with a wider range of choices and greater individualisation.
Although that may still be considered flat or 2D printing, it’s certainly mass customisation.
The increasing adoption of 3D printing, meanwhile, is enabling the production of many engineered components for manufacturing sectors such as automotive. These components may largely be used in prototyping at the moment, but there are already one or two examples of entirely 3D printed products in a variety of sectors.
Many large companies are looking to go beyond just using 3D printing for prototyping and their investments would seem to suggest they believe in the long-term future of the technology.
Boeing, for example, has made an investment in Digital Alloys, which produces 3D-printed parts for aerospace and other sectors.
Siemens and Porsche were among the big-money investors in MarkForged. And Volkswagen is one of many automakers looking to adopt 3D car production technologies.
Concurrently, the suppliers of 3D printing systems are also constantly improving their 3D printing systems, whether we’re talking about HP, Stratasys, 3D Systems, or many others, 10 of which we have listed elsewhere on this website.
Research from IDC suggests that global spending on 3D printing is likely to exceed $7 billion in the next three or four years.
This may be an understimate given the growing number of sectors who are looking into, and adopting, 3D printing techniques, which is, by default part of the trend towards mass customisation.
Along with 3D printing, which is often called additive manufacturing, another important component in mass customisation is software – whether it is to monitor and network machinery or processes.
This massive trend of “computerisation” in the industrial sector – wherein previously isolated machines are being connected to sensors, computers and networks – is often referred to as “Industry 4.0”, and really it’s all about software. Certainly, one the computers, sensors, routers and other hardware are all installed, it then becomes all about how to optimise every machine and every part of the process – and that’s a job for software, and, increasingly, artificial intelligence.
A lot of the software that mass customisation requires is either proprietary – developed by large companies for themselves – or it needs complex integration processes.
Many big computer technology companies, such as Google, and Amazon, are moving into the sector with offers of specialised software and platforms for industry, and others, such as Microsoft, and IBM, have already established partnerships with their gigantic industrial counterparts.
It’s unlikely that implementing the flexibility of production that mass customisation requires will ever be as simple as manufacturers would like it to be, but many observers believe that increasingly intense competition and decreasing profit margins will make initiatives such as cyber-physical systems, additive manufacturing, digitalisation, and other methods – such as lean manufacturing – even more important going forward than they were back in Sorensen’s time.
Seeing how industrial companies bring these various components together in an integrated production system which combines the best of information technology and operations technology is making the current era a very interesting time to live in.
Some observers are predicting that, in the not-too-distant future, most manufacturers will offer their products directly to consumers, who will be able to customise their order through a screen, as shown in the pictures used in this article.
This sort of thing – manufacturers selling directly to consumers – is already happening, of course. It’s what websites enable small and large companies alike to do. Famous examples include Apple, Nike, Adidas, and just about every brand you could think of.
Large manufacturers, especially consumer brands, now almost always have some direct sales channel connecting them to their customers. Even the less well-known manufacturers, who may be large companies but are not considered “brands” as such, are also looking to develop such channels.
And at a small scale, meanwhile, with many “micro-factories” being established in various places, startups are also able to reach consumers directly.
Whether this “micro” economic trend will continue to grow and affect the wider manufacturing sector is not certain, since large companies have a way of consolidating things in their favour. In other words, a lot of large companies are already offering customisation on a growing number of their products.
And certainly the technologies to design, develop and supply customised products on a mass scale is here, and it doesn’t look like any of it’s going away.
The biggest argument in favour of mass customisation is, of course, that you don’t have to mass-produce an item, thereby running the risk of ending up not being able to sell enough of them to be profitable. In fact, you don’t have to mass-produce at all – you can supply make and products one at a time.
Whereas, in traditional mass-manufacturing, even with just-in-time and lean techniques, it’s inevitable that such risks will continue to be part of the business.
It’s unlikely that mass customisation will usurp mass manufacturing, though it’s an interesting thought. What’s more likely, because history shows it to be so, is that established technologies and methods will find a way to accommodate the new, perhaps with a few modifications if not customisations.