RE: (long) Mass Customization

From: Brock Hinzmann (
Date: Thu Jan 03 2002 - 00:20:01 EET

Dear Steve,

I gave a talk on this (that is, why do people want design, using running
shoes as my example, and talking about RP-like technologies as creating
the possibility for mass customization in the future) at the Industrial
Designers Society of America national conference a few years back. The issues
are wide ranging. First of all, you must distinguish between a functional,
high-performance shoe, in this case, and fashion, which is actually what
many people are buying in the case of so-called athletic shoes. Second,
you have to be very careful about what you mean by what people want. You
have to ask: Which people?

Let's start with the functional shoe, because the issues are simpler
there, even though the technology required is much more complex. Basically,
that shoe better work. As a runner for over 30 years and probably close to
100,000 miles behind me (including a 2:19 marathon, if that means anything
to anyone on the RP list), I have had a very difficult time sorting
through the zillions of shoe choices to find the one that's right for me (as
opposed to the three or four choices I had back in the '60s). Shoe designers
make subtle changes in the design of a given model every year, to the
point that it finally no longer works for me. While we all fit into
categories, each person's body mechanics are a slightly different set of
combinations of structure, weight, heel plant, foot roll, toe push, and so on. If you
go out jogging a couple times a week, you can wear a lot of different
shoes and not get injured, even if they aren't comfortable. If you are
running a hard ten or fifteen miles a day, a nonfunctional shoe can give you an
injury after a couple days or even the first time out.

Two forms of customization should be possible. One is an in-store
evalution system that measures all the appropriate dynamics and tells you which
of the existing zillions of shoes to buy off the Web. Although some
attempts at that have been made, a truly useful device doesn't exist. The second
mass customization approach would be to use a similar device to capture
the running dynamics in terms that are known to correlate to specific design
features. Since those features are permutations of a large number of
dynamic aspects, that technology doesn't exist yet, either. Instead, we rely
on experienced design engineers to take their best shot, based on evidence
they collect in laboratories and from shoe tester programs, and we rely on
the teenager salesperson in the store to figure out which one of those
shoes will work for a total stranger. Make no mistake about it, the big
running shoe companies are spending a lot of money on research and testing.
It's a shame that so much work goes into it and I still have such a tough
time finding the right shoe.

Fashion is a different story altogether. If you aren't pushing the edge
of the functional design envelope, there is no limit. The problem is, not
everyone is the same. While some kids will try anything and are often the
early users of new products and approaches to things, the deep-seated
psychological motivations behind buying products are very different among
different kinds of people, especially as they become adults. Not everyone wants
the newest thing and those that do can mislead market observers into
thinking everyone will buy the newest thing. People looking for the newest
thrill often try stuff that is not desired by, or is even offensive to
others. Another group wants the thrill seekers to try it first and, if it works
or looks good, then they want to buy the exact same thing or they want to
buy a cheaper look-alike version, but they basically are not looking to
customize it; quite the contrary. Feature creep can even become fashion for
awhile, if it looks cool enough. Some people are willing to take the time
to figure out how something works, if it really works, and they often do
not care as much about how it looks. Other people aren't willing to read
the instruction manual and they want it to do only certain things, but they
might be more concerned about how it looks or how it makes them look. If
it makes them look stupid, they'll hate it. Some people lead lifestyles in
which they simply are not interested in fashion at all.

Creativity is another issue that we have discussed on this list many
times. In the early 80s, it was thought that everyone would become a
newsletter publisher. With the Web, it was thought everyone in the world will have
a personal Web site. Neither has happened yet. In the future, I doubt
everyone will become a shoe designer. Many will try, but they will eventually
give it up to those that are good at it or that have a real interest in it
(not necessarily the same). Even really creative people produce junk most
of the time. We already have inexpensive technology for people to make
their own clothes, but most people don't do it, let alone design and make
their own clothes. For some clothes, they will have a specialist fit them
and make customized adjustments. The cost of that time, however, is too much
for most people to buy all their clothes that way.

Even this long message is incomplete in the numbers of issues involved in
changing from a mass production to a mass customization society. To use
RP-like technologies for mass customization of shoes, or any number of
other products, will require more than the technology getting cheaper, the
technology getting >>better<< (whatever that means), or even a great
marketing campaign. I suspect it will require genetic modification of human beings
into something different than what we are now.

Brock Hinzmann
Technology Navigator
SRI Consulting Business Intelligence
Menlo Park, California

Steven Pollack wrote:
>Dear List,
>I recently had the interesting experience of purchasing a new pair of
>shoes. I dutifully went to the wall of left shoes at the mall store and
>amazed by the proliferation of shoe designs and materials. I have no
>Rapid Prototyping technology advances have fueled this bonanza of
>In fact I started feeling like an old man (of 36) thinking how in the
>am I supposed to choose from among all these crazy styles and wistfully
>conjuring up simpler times when shoe designs offered less choices.
>Now this is not mass customization but I am aware that there are sites
>allow for enough choice control to be given such a title. My question
>this: Does the general public have the desire to make these kinds of
>or enough design skill to feel comfortable in making these kinds of
>The current mass production driven system of manufacturing makes this
>question irrelevent because the product engineer and product designer
>pre-digest the available options and present the marketplace with well
>thought out designs. But as we are all seeing CAD/CAM is lowering the
>threshold for providing one off designs. Automated manufacturing
>will undoubtedly crop up where the user becomes the designer, turning
>designer/manufacturer/consumer relationship around.
>Digital Jeweler, our server side CAD software walks the line in between
>these alternatives by offering customization of a pre-engineered core
>through the use of knowledge engineering. My question as far as I am
>concerned is if the consumer would desire to go the next step further in
>having "complete" design control within a system that either guides for
>proper manufacturing parameters or mandates it. Is the general
>incapable of this level of design choice meaning it would be a niche
>for those brave enough to try it or is the current state of
>consumerism(choosing between alternatives) just a temporary natural
>consequence of the marketplace created by the industrial revolution and
>Would your answer change if there were design helpers in the program
>that while the user could be allowed to design something outside the
>of good design or manufacturing, pop-up helpers would alert the user and
>give them alternatives to their current choices? What if the helpers
>also design driven?
>Or do you believe the user would need to be corralled inside a system
>only produces "good results" as pre-determined by those knowledgeable
>product design?
>Finally, is the analysis of this issue fatally skewed by this being a
>of engineers? d:^D
>Steven Pollack
>President, Digital Jeweler
>660 Vernon Ave
>Glencoe, IL 60022

For more information about the rp-ml, see

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.4 : Tue Jan 21 2003 - 20:13:17 EET