Value Add Cutting Edge: Production
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Copyright 2006
Cornell University.
All rights reserved.


Mass Customization

Mass customization is a new approach to manufacturing and providing services that is revolutionizing business. As consumers and retailers demand more individualized products and services, apparel producers are rethinking their approaches to products and manufacturing processes.

Digital printing can be used to produce mass customized clothing.
  • The term mass customization describes the adaptation of mass production, process & information technologies, and management strategies to increase personalized offerings with customer involvement.
  • The goal of mass customization is for customers to find exactly what they want when they want it at a reasonable price. Flexible manufacturing and quick response make this possible.

A key component in mass customization is the reduction of time from order to delivery. Davis (1987) describes the time rules of mass customization as:

  • Customers need product orders in their time frame, and not the apparel producers’ time frames.
  • Apparel producers who shorten work-in-process time and ship products as soon as an order is completed will have an advantage over their competitors.
  • Reduced lag time between customers’ identification and fulfillment of needs will decrease work in process and inventory.

DelRio photo
"We outsource our manufacturing here in the city to a union factory...We’re getting orders everyday from the customer so it doesn’t behoove us to have our stuff queued up behind someone else and get it all at once. We need to be cutting our product every day, be sewing everyday, and be shipping it everyday. "

Peter Del Rio of IC3D explains how mass customization uses real time manufacturing to produce and ship orders as they are received. This requires new manufacturing processes that are based on single garment construction instead of large orders focused on lower prices with volume. Time is most important so that customers receive their products quickly and IC3D has no unsold inventory.


Let’s explore mass customization options in apparel production by the points at which customers become involved in the production process as is illustrated in the apparel mass customization model below.

apparel mass customization model
(adapted from Duray, Ward, Milligan, Berry, 2000)

Mass customization involves customers more than mass production. For example, consumers and retailers help in the design process by selecting garment details, fabrics or size measurements for clothing items.

Mass customization requires enabling technologies for production, information, and communication. Here is an expanded list of these technologies that support product development, production, orders, distribution.

What is Mass Customization?
Mass customization strategies can be used at any of these six stages in the production process.

  1. Customer Involvement at the Pattern Stage
  2. Customer Involvement at the Design Stage
  3. Customer Involvement in Production Planning
  4. Customer Involvement at the Assembly Stage
  5. Customer Involvement in Distribution
  6. Customer Involvement after the Purchase

Mass customization shortens production time and increases production efficiency while creating an individualized product or service. Its technologies reduce order to delivery time while increasing individuality.

Mass customization can be the basis for an entire business (e.g., or one piece of the business (e.g., Lands’ End). Producers can adapt their design and production processes to incorporate some mass customized products or services.

For example, retailers might request a current style to be ordered with a different fabric or sleeve. Or they continuously replenish their inventory with orders based on past consumer purchases.

Patterns Stage
When a customer enters the mass customization process at the pattern stage, custom fit or design can occur. Patterns can be developed for individual
customers and the ultimate form of mass customization occurs -- manufacturing for a market of one.

Mass customization at the pattern stage is made possible with enabling technologies such as computer-aided design (CAD), digital printing, single ply,
automated cutting, and the body scanning pictured here. A customer can provide measurements and define styling details & fabric prints for unique
clothing items that can be produced efficiently through mass customization processes and technology.

body scanner Body scanning technology collects over 200,000 3D data points to describe the body’s outer surface. These data points develop a more accurate representation of the body than the limited number of linear measurements taken with a tape measure (e.g., waist, hips, chest, back neck, etc.). And the scanning process only takes 12 seconds. Measurements compatible with computer aided design (CAD) pattern making systems are extracted from the data cloud, permitting development of individually sized patterns.

Digital textile printing allows for unique designs to be printed onto pre-cut fabric that is then cut and sewn into unique apparel items. Apparel producers would have pattern pieces ready for printing when a customer order for a particular print is received. This would save time in the production process where apparel producers currently purchase textile goods months in advance, without being sure any customer will order a particular print.

Digital printing technology enables fabric to be printed later in the
manufacturing process.

Single ply, automated cutting equipment and flexible manufacturing strategies are also essential to mass customization. While the advantage of mass production is high volume in one style, the advantage of mass customization is flexible, time-sensitive production without wasteful inventory. Apparel articles are produced only for order and the orders may be for as few as one or two pieces.

Current Industry Examples of Patterns

Design Stage

Customer may choose garment styles, such as necklines and front openings.
At the design stage, components can be chosen by the consumer or retailer from a finite number of size, garment style, and fabric options. Consumers selecting pants with length variations within the regular size categories (e.g. size 12 long) or a shirt with neckline options are examples of component choice mass customizations. Retailers working with apparel producers to set style, fabric, and size specifications for private label products is an example of component choice mass customization. For example, retailers can add the store logo or request a specific color during the design stage of production.

Component choice mass customization gives the power of choice to the consumer, retailer, or business customer within limits. The manufacturer may limit customer options by offering only fabric choices or sleeve style choices or size choices. Or the apparel producer can offer customers all three options. The important point is that the customer is involved at the design stage and chooses from a number of alternatives.

Your-T is an example of a component choice e-commerce website. Note this interactive site on the Designers as Entrepreneurs site under your-T button. I would like this to be more obvious so that people can get to it in different ways.

Current Industry Examples of Design

Production Planning

Point-of-Sale purchase using an electronic link.

Mass Customization strategies at the Production Planning stage and later at the Point-of-Sale (POS) stage are enabled by electronic links among the departments of an apparel producer and between the producer and its customers. Major retailers currently use EDI or electronic data interchange for ordering, invoicing, and shipping. These EDI links, and now Internet links, can be used to collect consumer purchase data and to base production plans on this information.

Apparel producers traditionally operated on a 66-week production cycle, from design and ordering fabric to customer delivery. Mass customization can increase competitiveness by shortening this production time through production planning strategies. Forecasting future orders based on consumer purchases is one mass customization strategy. Testing styles and fabrics with retail customers during the pre-season provides valuable information used to plan (or mass customize) production. Basic styles and styles identified by retailers for which an apparel producer is certain to get orders can be produced early in the season. Then, production time is free later in the season for the styles that sell very well and are reordered. The goal is to make enough pieces of the styles that sell and will be reordered and not make too many pieces of the styles that will not sell.

Current Industry Examples of Production

Assembly Stage


Apparel customers can become involved in mass customization at the manufacturing stage if they want to repeat an order in a small quantity or with new fabrics. These small lot orders could take the form of basic styles that are reordered each year or during the season with new and well-received colors and fabrics or slight style modifications. The design and patterns already exist so the order is easily repeated using CAD equipment and sent directly to assembly? Flexible manufacturing strategies such as modular manufacturing increase the efficiency of small order production.

Current Industry Examples of Assembly


With the advent of bar codes and electronic data interchange (EDI), consumer point-of-sale (POS) information is available to both retailer and apparel producer. This information opens up the possibility of delivering apparel goods to retail customers based on their sales and inventory needs.

Current Industry Examples of Distibution

Mass customizing the delivery of apparel goods could revolutionize retailing by changing its basic assumptions. Rather than assuming and planning for markdowns halfway through a selling season, retailers order a small portion of each season’s order and use consumer sales to decide which styles need to be reordered and in what sizes and colors.

Some retailers study the POS data and manage their own reorders. Some retailers put apparel producers in charge of this process, called vendor- managed replenishment. Apparel producers can also use point-of-sale information to manage their own production planning based on the styles and delivery dates they predict retailers will request.

Post Purchase
Post-purchase adjustments can be built into the product for customers to do it themselves. Unhemmed pants, do-it-yourself kits for designing T-shirts, and sneakers with the choice of three colors of laces are all examples of post-purchase customer adjustments. More high tech adjustments in shoes, such as fit adjustments using air inflation in sneakers and gel in ski boots, suggest a future for creative post-purchase adjustments that could increase a firm’s competitiveness.

Current Industry Examples of Post Purchase

Example from Issey Miyake’s A-POC line of clothing.
Image from National Geographic, January 2003




1. How does mass customization combine custom and mass production strategies to offer both customization and low price?
2. After exploring the product configurator made available at and some commercial web sites, describe the value added to mass customized products with customer involvement.
3. List three technologies that enable mass customization strategies that might work for your business and explain how they would increase your efficiencies based on time and/or customer involvement.





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