Consumers Want More Product Customization, But Manufacturers May Not Be Able To Deliver

manufacturing customizationAmerican consumers increasingly expect customization in the products they buy, from smartphones to automobiles.  But they don’t necessarily expect manufacturers to be able to deliver the true levels of individuality that shoppers desire. And there are mixed signals about whether manufacturers themselves recognize the imperative.

A recent survey commissioned by Protolabs found that 86 percent of Americans find customization appealing when it comes to their electronic devices including smartphones, tablets, notebooks and cameras. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed for Protolabs by ORC International said they would dish out more money to customize their electronic devices. When they get those customized products, 60 percent want them in three days or less, and about 20 percent of them want the products overnighted.

Another survey, by brand monitor YouGov, indicated that 26 percent of U.S. consumers have personalized a product, with apparel and footwear, food and beverages the most common types of applications, at 29 percent, followed by technology products at 27 percent, vacation and travel experiences at 25 percent, and household goods at 22 percent.

Yet only 16 percent of those consumers in the Protolabs survey believe the current marketplace is excelling at customizing these devices, and fewer than one-third of consumers think most brands are equipped today to meet customer expectations for customized electronic devices.

Manufacturers seem to be recognizing the opportunity to leverage greater customization with consumers but also don’t seem to be treating it with as much urgency as other demands. Also, not all manufacturers that want to do more build-to-order are effectively equipped to move their business in that direction.

For example, consider how manufacturers are wielding the important customization tool of 3D printing. Ninety-three percent of companies using 3D printing in 2018 are able to gain competitive advantages including enabling the flexibility for shorter production runs, which of course is an essential element of customization, according to the latest version of an annual study by Sculpteo on the state of 3D printing.

But according to the Sculpteo study, accelerating product development — not enabling customization — is the highest priority companies are relying on 3D printing to provide, jumping from 29 percent in 2017 to 39 percent in 2018. Surveyed manufacturers also ranked two other reasons for 3D printing as more important than customization: boosting product or service quality, 30 percent, and increasing innovation speed, 29 percent. Customization and product or service choice placed third, at 21 percent.

“At a time when product personalization is commanding premium prices and driving customer loyalty, companies can’t afford to produce one-size-fits-all product”

Manufacturers need to close this apparent disconnect between consumer demands and expectations for fast-rising customization options, and the companies’ assessment of the opportunity based on what they’re doing with their operations, according to Vicki Holt, president and CEO of Maple Plain, Minn.-based Protolabs.

“At a time when product personalization is commanding premium prices and driving customer loyalty, companies can’t afford to produce one-size-fits-all products,” Holt said.

Holt’s missionary work is to help American manufacturers achieve continuous cost reduction and optimal flexibility in manufacturing by providing rapid prototyping and on-demand production, with automated 3D printing, CNC machining, sheet-metal fabrication and injection-molding processes. Yet, as Holt told Chief Executive, the message has difficulty getting through to some manufacturing CEOs.

“What I find is that CEOs, particularly CEOs of traditional companies that have been producing and behaving in certain ways for many years – it’s a huge education and change-management issue for them to move to a more digital world,” she said.

At the same time, even CEOs that have adopted a strategy for greater customization may be presiding over manufacturers that aren’t necessarily equipped for such a thrust. Companies that are best at deepening their offerings of customization, through technologies such as 3D printing, tend to be those that were built at least partially on a build-to-order strategy.

“As long as a manufacturer has built a comprehensive manufacturing strategy around build-to-order, they tend to do well – when it’s part of their core strategy,” says Louis Columbus, principal for IQMS and an enterprise-software strategist based in Orange, California. “They’re speeding up and capitalizing on what’s already in their core DNA.”

Manufacturers seeking to do more customization also must ensure that their back-end IT systems – most essentially, their Enterprise Resource Planning software, Product Life Cycle management system, and Customer Relationship Management platform – are well-orchestrated. “That is crucial for a manufacturer to have the scale to deal with inbound customization orders,” Columbus says.

Read more: Getting More for Less in Modern Manufacturing