Donal Reddington on mass customization, crowdsourcing and digital manufacturing

Industrial Mass Customization

In, there is an interesting guest editorial by Harald Kofler, president of a company called American High Performance Seals. He speaks about the growing ease with which businesses can purchase customised industrial components at much lower prices than might be expected.  Articles by an executive of a company can often be categorised as ‘Advertorial’, combining market analysis with praise for the company’s own products.   To his credit, Kofler does not use the guest editorial to talk up his company’s products directly, but it is reasonable to assume that his company was the successful supplier referred to in the article.

He makes some interesting points about the changing nature of business-to-business trade:

“The emergence of faster and more comprehensive software, new energy- and materials-efficient manufacturing technology and advanced materials has combined to lower the cost of designing and manufacturing small lots of virtually any part in almost any material. For the same cost as off-the-shelf seals, a lubrication system maker was able to order a custom designed piston seal that limited rocking motion, reduced fluid seepage and lasted beyond the life of the system.”

He refers specifically to the growth of mass customization in the industrial products market:

“More quietly, industrial products have also begun to enter a “have it your way” world. The experience of the lubrication system manufacturer reflects a paradigm shift occurring among original equipment manufacturers all over the world. The number of applications in which it is most cost-effective to use a custom-designed part has increased exponentially in recent years….The result is that companies in all industries, and in particular smaller enterprises, are increasingly using custom-designed parts, and thereby gaining a competitive edge from the components inside their products or the manufacturing equipment or systems they use to make their products.”

He notes that custom manufacturers tend to be smaller companies specializing in one type of part or in serving a limited number of industries. However, in evaluating a custom parts designers, the customer should apply the same criteria as with any vendor: delivery times, product quality, flexibility in meeting the customer’s needs. In the world of parts, that translates into three factors:

“1. Can the custom manufacturer meet your deadline?…Some custom parts makers, large and small, now offer one-to-four day turnaround for their custom-design parts. When contacting a custom parts maker, it is wise to ask up front what the delivery time will be.
2. Will the custom parts manufacturer accommodate your quantity? … It’s wise not only to tell the potential vendor what your likely quantity is upfront, but also to ask for references of customers who purchased similar quantities.
3. Does the company have the engineering capabilities? It’s appropriate to inquire about the parts design experience not only of the company, but also of its engineering team.”

Harald Kofler expects that in the not too distant future most companies will stipulate custom-designed parts for most of their new and retrofitted equipment, assemblies and components. The reason he gives for this is that the combination of better design and more durable material enables the custom part to do its job better than an off-the-shelf approximation.

Whereas custom-made parts are generally thought of as being, at best, equal in cost to standard parts, Kofler looks at situation from a ‘total cost of ownership’ perspective. He suggests that the longer-lasting, better fitting custom part is similar in cost today to the standard part, and has the potential to lower energy, maintenance and replacement costs in the future.

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