From standard to personal production: A new industrial trend?

In the early twentieth century, the Ford Motor Company began a trend in the world of the automotive industry, which ended up encompassing thousands of other businesses: the T-Model production. Henry Ford was looking for saving production costs and providing consumers with more facilities to purchase his new product. To do this, he put into practice the theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor about the perfect combination between humans and machines and gave rise to the first standardized car model in the world. Today we see it as a museum piece, but back then it was the equivalent of a spaceship, actually. Many would have believed that Mr. Ford had philanthropic aspirations with his new invention, but he really only sought a way to expand his business. However, this model and chain-production system revolutionized the industry, which was already advancing by leaps and bounds since the invention of the steam engine in England.

From that moment, the era of standardization began, and the concept of standardization went even beyond the mere industry. In fact, our present educational system is indirectly influenced by the ideas of Henry Ford. How is this? Since the construction of more and more factories in the world, the education authorities raised the need to educate children in order to condition them from their earliest years to the hard and repetitive work in the factories. Strict schedules, uniforms, the standard grading system, the transmission of standardized and universal knowledge, etc. Standardizing meant (and still does) stripping the units of any difference that made them unique, so that they would resemble each other as much as possible. And it is “as much as possible,” because in nature and in the whole universe, the general rule – and almost absolute – is that nothing is completely equal: Two leaves of grass are never entirely alike. Two drops of water. Two snowflakes. They are actually two different micro-universes.

For this reason, critics of the current educational system consider that new changes must be implemented, corresponding to today’s conditions. In fact, in the Western world, the population of factory workers is declining every day since the 1970s. Similarly, critics of supply chain management are also questioning the standardized production system, which in many cases has remained unchanged since the early twentieth century.

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As a matter of fact – and although it is hard for us to believe – before mass production, practically nothing resembled anything, nor did it seek to resemble anything. Every manufactured object was really unique, almost a craft: a horseshoe, a meat pie, a flute, a brick, a ball … and so on. In each case, a customer hired a local producer to make an article, with the suitable characteristics for him/her. Personalization was the general rule. Every single piece of music interpreted before the creation of the gramophone was unique and unrepeatable, even if it was based on a score. Most parts of books was written by hand before Gutenberg, and every copy was actually a unique edition because every copyist used to include his own additions to the text.

For this reason, some believe that standardization is an abnormal process. Although we all understand the reasons for standardization, especially the need to lower production and acquisition costs, it is necessary to understand that, on the one hand, Ford’s ideas were perfectly applicable in his time; and, on the other hand, the characteristics of the consumer economy in which we live are quite different. The standardization of machines now allows the customization of products. Such is the case of Amazon and its editorial platform Create Space: any author can modify the uploaded text files so that each print on demand is different. It means that it’s possible to produce a personalized and inexpensive article. But this is just an example.

Developments in nanotechnology are opening up the spectrum of possibilities. Today, for instance, it is possible to create completely personalized bone prostheses thanks to nano-robots. 3D printers work on this basis and that single invention will mean another revolution in the coming decades. These types of phenomena are known as mass customization: the ability to produce items or to provide services designed to meet the individual needs of each customer.

Implementing mass customization is much simpler than most people think. If a company applies this system, it will not really customize any item or service, it will only prepare dozens or hundreds of modules that will allow factories to produce unique articles. In this way, you can meet the needs of each customer and assemble the necessary modules to produce any possible number of product configurations.

vans-exhibition_from-standard-to-personal-production
Image courtesy of Naoya Fujii at Flickr.com

We are facing a new business paradigm, indeed: Customizing products by a mixture of fixed elements, assembled by or for each consumer. In consequence, each product will be genuine because it is designed for a specific market (in its maximum expression) and the brand promise will be exclusive because consumers are involved to complete the production process if they indicate their preferences or tastes.

Welcome to the future of endless possibilities.

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