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Copyright 2006
Cornell University.
All rights reserved.


Mass Production

Mass production is the result of the industrial revolution, when machines were invented to do the production processes originally completed by hand. Sewing machines replaced hand needles, electric cutting saws replaced hand scissors, and industrial looms replaced handlooms.

Mass production is characterized by

  • interchangeable parts
  • specialized machines
  • a division of labor.

Machines are built to complete a single task such as making piping, setting sleeves, or printing patterns. Workers are expert at one step in the manufacturing process and perform it over and over again.

The objectives of mass production are to

  • achieve economies of scale by
  • standardizing products
  • developing efficient processes
  • thereby producing more of each product at one time
  • selling at a lower price.
Mass production is based on economies
of scale.

The value of the product is in its low cost and standard look as well as a shorter production time. This contrasts with the value of uniqueness for custom production.

How does mass production work in apparel?

As the apparel industry adopted mass production, businesses began to specialize in a single product type. In this way, it was easier to manage both the number of specialized pieces of equipment, as well as the skills of the workers needed to produce a single product type. This specialization holds true today, with apparel producers manufacturing one or several related product types. Here are the basic steps.

  • One pattern or specification is developed.
  • It is graded into a size range such as 2-18.
  • Multiple products are cut or prepared at the same time.
  • One worker is assigned to the first step, another to the next step, and so on.
  • Many single articles are being sewn at the same time.
  • Materials for production are ordered in bulk
    • to save money through high quantity orders, and
    • to ensure that materials are available when orders are received.
  • The total order to delivery time is based on the time it takes to
    • order materials
    • assemble the product
    • deliver the product to the customer.

When mass production was still a new idea, this process took months. In the apparel industry, until recently it was a 66-week process. It was dependent on materials producers, throughput time (time for a single unit to be produced), and shipping strategies. Order to delivery time is usually shorter than for a custom produced product but is still considerable for the vast majority of mass produced products. Today, time is a competitive advantage and small and large firms must trim the time it takes from materials purchase, to design, production, and delivery processes. We call this supply chain management.

The main disadvantage of mass production is the lack of product uniqueness. It is a cookie-cutter process fulfilling many consumer needs with one solution. By definition the fashion process is many people choosing the same style, and mass production actually accommodates fashion better than custom production. It makes it possible for more people to purchase a fashionable item, the style of the times, sooner. If long, black, cotton cardigans suddenly become fashionable, many of them can be mass produced quickly to meet the demand.

Mills photo
"The most important part of your business is managing your inventory."

Malia Mills shares a valuable lesson that she learned about production volumes in the first years of her swimwear business.


To benefit from mass production, the sweaters must be the same style and have the same fabric. This lowers the cost by efficient processes and quantity purchases of materials. All consumers are offered the same selection; individual modifications are not regularly available.

Another disadvantage of mass production is the inventory or stock of products that builds up before the products are sold. This happens because many items are produced at one time. Inventory costs money until it is sold because of the investment in materials and labor. Manufacturers and retailers try to limit inventory by only making the number of products that are ordered and by forecasting exactly the number of items that will sell. Unsuccessful guesses result in retail markdowns and other tactics to sell the excess inventory. Manufacturers’ outlet stores and discount retailers are strategies used to get rid of unsold inventory.

Brill photo
"We call it the extra stock list for the stores. But, for the knitters, it’s the faux pas list…If I have it in extra stock, [retailers can] get it tomorrow. I can ship it right out.."

Amy Brill explains how some designers use a retail store to sell extra stock. She prefers to sell only wholesale so she sends an extra stock list to retailers with their orders. They can order from the list and receive the goods immediately.



1. Why does mass production have lower costs than custom production?
2. In addition to sewing the products, what other processes must be calculated into the order to delivery time
for sewn products?
3. Why is inventory a potential problem for mass production businesses?




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