An individually, digitally printed wedding dress.
The term 'mass customisation' is increasingly used within the apparel industry. But as so often happens with new concepts and terminologies, there appears to be a high level of misunderstanding and difference of opinion about what the term actually means. There is also a certain degree of scepticism throughout the industry towards the whole philosophy.

Despite all this, mass customisation is being heavily promoted within the apparel industry, particularly by the CAD companies. Here, Rick Ludolph, president of Assyst- Bullmer Inc, Peter Tredwin, vice president of sales and marketing at Gerber Technology, Daniel Harari, chairman and chief executive officer of Lectra Systèmes and Ramón Yepes, research and development director at Investrónica Sistemas, explain what they actually mean by the term, how and why they believe it provides a major opportunity to the industry, where they see its major benefits, and how they feel about the future of mass customisation.

Mass customisation is a term frequently used by your company and, increasingly, by the industry. However, the term seems to mean different things to different people. What exactly do you understand by mass customisation and how would you define it?

RL Assyst: Mass customisation is a service-oriented business model aimed at providing customers with "personalized" products. The focus of mass customisation is on creating variety and customisation from standard product components. The infrastructure required to achieve mass customisation requires flexibility and quick responsiveness. If mass production aims to deliver goods at prices low enough for everyone to afford, mass customisation seeks to deliver affordable goods with enough variety for everyone to find exactly what they want.

PT Gerber: A standard product, modified from a menu of options, to meet the specific, unique choices of a single consumer.

RY Investronica: The concept of made-to-measure denotes products that, in their inception, development and offer are adapted to the particular needs of each customer. We are talking about allowing customers to "design" their own products. But the phenomenon is more than this; the product must also adapt to the particular physical measurements and make-up of each customer. Investrónica refers to the concept of made to measure as 'made to shape.'

DH Lectra: According to Lectra, mass customisation is based on a personalised client's request, which is responded to with the help of an efficient industrial process. Lectra has always kept a close watch on its final consumer in order to develop products that will match their expectations. Lectra's choices have always been determined by a sociological analysis of consumer behaviour.

Mass customisation is promoted by many of the major CAD companies as an opportunity for the industry. Is this the view of your company and, if so, what is the logic and reasoning behind it?

RL Assyst: Mass customisation certainly does hold opportunities for the industry in that today's consumers are demanding more and more variety in the products they purchase. Not only variety, but personalised products are also preferred by many to mass market commodity items. The mass customisation business model provides financial opportunities as well, due to the fact that consumers are willing to pay more for personalized products. In short, mass customisation seeks to meet the needs of the changing consumer by offering more choice.

PT Gerber: Yes I think mass customisation will change the way people think about buying anything. Why? Because almost everyone would like the opportunity to have freedom of choice at a fair price. That is the goal of mass customisation.

RY Investronica: We interpret this as a consequence of the increasing power of the consumer, who demands increasingly personalised products. In response, for over 10 years Investronica has been offering IT tools (MTM) to meet the requirements of this specific demand, with reasonable costs.

DH Lectra:
Yes, mass customization represents a real opportunity for the industries with which we are dealing. However, Lectra thinks the reasoning is different nowadays. It's not about creating and producing products that the consumer must adapt to anymore. Now, it's necessary to listen to the consumer in order to conceive products that are completely adapted to him. The business model is totally different, with a very competitive economic edge. A new economic growth model is prevalent, generating cash and higher margins.

What type of industry can benefit most from introducing mass customisation? What markets, what kind of product? Where are the main opportunities?

Gerber customer Morning Pride is a leader in mass customised products.

RL Assyst: Opportunities for mass customisation exist in nearly all sewn products industries. In apparel, we can find numerous examples of men's made-to-measure clothing. Made-to-measure is an extreme form of mass customisation, where fit is the personalized aspect of the product. Levi's has, for some time, been offering an expanded range of sizes for women's jeans. Opportunities also exist for other forms of personalization in apparel. For example, enabling the consumer to pick from a choice of fabrics, trims, components etc on their favourite styles.

Upholstered furniture is perhaps one of the most recognized mass customised products. Most upholstery producers offer a choice of fabrics for each style. The product is assembled in the same way, but the selection of fabrics allows each consumer to purchase the perfect look for their individual room setting.

Automobiles are often personalised, either through OEM options or after-market accessories. Applying this to the sewn products industry, we're beginning to see a trend toward choices in the colour and design of auto interior fabrics and materials.

PT Gerber: Automotive, boats, furniture, and many, many examples of apparel.

RY Investronica: In the first instance, mass customisation was focused on the top end men's wear sector, with highly priced but relatively uniform products. The introduction of highly flexible IT products for the apparel industry has led to a reduction in production costs, as well as a widening of this offer to other sectors of demand. In the broadest sense, where the customer or group of customers make all the decisions about the product, this offer can be extended - in some cases as far as the ready to wear sector.

DH Lectra: All the markets we address are thinking in terms of personalisation - for example, the insides of cars and private jets, interior design, a range of furniture and curtains. Nowadays, we see personalisation services flourishing in all sectors - such as the fast moving consumer goods market, or in services, banking, tourism, etc.

Assuming mass customisation will only serve a limited percentage of the marketplace, what percentage of the industry as a whole do you see moving this way and what percentage in each of the areas highlighted by you in the last question?

RL Assyst:
We see mass customisation, for most companies, as one of several strategies within their business model. Mass production will certainly not be replaced by mass customisation: they will co-exist. For traditional mass producers, we expect that mass customisation will start as a very small percentage (5-15 per cent) of the product mix. For more service-oriented firms with the infrastructure to produce and distribute in small quantities, the move to mass customisation can be more significant and faster.

PT Gerber: I cannot provide exact percentages, but HUGE!

RY Investronica: The trend is clear, from the technological point of view, due to the implementation of IT platforms that make this offer possible. There are, in fact, companies who manufacture ready-to-wear but are able to offer a high level of personalisation in the designs and collections on offer to their customers. In this sense, made-to-measure technology, by incorporating an extremely high degree of flexibility, has allowed the mass customisation phenomenon to reach not only the classic made-to-measure trade, but also some of the ready-to-wear end. And consequently, in the broadest sense, this trend will be applicable to a significant percentage of the market.

DH Lectra: Today, almost a third of our clients have a mass customisation activity. This tendency should grow significantly during the next five years.

There is a very known expression in England: "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" There have been many developments in technology over recent years - MTM software, automatic marker making, affordable single ply cutting, product development systems, Internet, e-commerce - all of which enable mass customisation to become a realistic and manageable service. However, is mass customisation being promoted by the CAD companies as a way of marketing this technology and finding a use for it, or has the technology been developed to answer a demand from the industry for a customised service? If it is the latter, who were the main industry instigators? Where are they based? What markets are they in? And how successful have they been in offering a mass customised service?

Lectra's FitNet.

RL Assyst: It is clear that CAD/CAM developments are driven by the needs of the customer base. As with any business, CAD/CAM companies seek to produce products that the market will invest in. The same is true with mass customised sewn products. These producers are meeting a defined need for variety and personalisation.

Today we find most mass customisation concentrated in better, high quality products and centred on the issue of fit. Moving forward, we expect to see a wider range of variety (not just fit), with the goal being to offer enough variety so that nearly everyone finds exactly what they want.

PT Gerber: The latter. A wonderful example is the furniture industry worldwide. One of the biggest drivers is the challenge of inventory, as with the automotive industry. Big, expensive products with masses of choice opportunity. Making product one at a time for an identified customer is very cost effective.

RY Investronica: Mass customisation is driven by demand. It is the consumer who requests personalised and differentiated products. In the case of ready-to-wear, it is the distribution chains that speak for the consumer. Their decisions are based on studies of customer preference, and they demand a certain level of flexibility from their apparel suppliers. This is a challenge, a threat and an opportunity for apparel manufacturers, who need to be able to count on technological solutions that allow them to meet these demands. In this respect, technology plays a leading part as a necessary driver. But it also plays a subsidiary role, as it is only an instrument that makes market demand viable - which, in its turn, dictates future technological developments. This is a self-perpetuating circle, upon which Investrónica Sistemas has been focusing for more than ten years.

DH Lectra: Lectra has never spent millions of dollars in research and development just because of opportunistic reasoning or in response to a fad. Every development at Lectra has always been a reaction to a real market need. As for mass customisation, it was important that the upstream tools of taking measurements and of 3D human body modelling - as well as the downstream sales tools - were finalised to better answer our clients' expectations and those of the final consumers.

Lectra has developed a global solution for mass customisation. This allows us to better respond to the increasingly demanding needs of companies, in terms of personalisation or personalised services.

Men's shirts and suit makers have been the first innovators in the traditional market or in tailoring. There aren't many, but they are very successful. Today, the women's wear sector is becoming more and more dynamic, as is the uniform equipment and work clothes market.

How many customers do you have actively offering a mass customised service? What percentage of their business is mass customisation, and what percentage of your customer base does this represent? How do you see these numbers and percentages changing over the next two to five years?

RL Assyst: Less than twenty per cent of our customers today have a significant mass customisation strategy. Among these producers, the percentage of mass customisation varies from ten to one hundred per cent of their total production. We see these numbers increasing over the coming years.

PT Gerber: Hundreds of our customers are already developing a significant mass customisation strategy. I cannot be specific as to the percentage of their business, but with many companies we deal with it is 100 per cent. There are, however, more and more tending towards mass customisation

RY Investronica: Currently we are able to give a figure of about ten per cent. But if we are talking about flexible systems that significantly reduce time to market, in the medium term this figure should rise to more than forty per cent - although this will have to be accompanied by other technological advances such as 3D scanners, confidentiality of data, Internet etc.

DH Lectra: Today Lectra counts a total of 180 FitNet references, with clients dedicated to tailoring, and others who have launched a new tailoring line in addition to their mass production. One third of our clients already have a mass customisation activity.

Niki Tait, C.Text FTI, FCFI heads Apparel Solutions, which provides independent assistance to the apparel industry in the areas of manufacturing methods, industrial engineering, information technology, and quick response.