top of page

"Understanding the Key Differences: Mass Customization vs. Traditional Manufacturing"

As the market pushes more wood product manufacturers to offer customized products, information complexity is increasing. The time it takes to process the information for a custom product is often longer than the time to manufacture it, and the process is prone to errors.

Mass customization lets customers shape products to their needs with unprecedented control. It enables manufacturers to offer more than just parametric products. It enables them to create an experience that fosters customer loyalty, along with the opportunity to more profitably create personalized products.

So how does information technology enable mass customization? In simplest terms it provides the virtual space that connects customers, products and manufacturing in a seamless process.

Up to Our Eyeballs In Acronyms

Information systems for mass customization are complex beasts, made up of lots of pieces with three letter names. A minimal system consists of a Configurator; engineering software for CAD, CAM, and optimization; a Manufacturing Execution System (MES) for managing the flow of production; and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) for managing inventory, purchasing, and accounting.

Mass customization relies heavily on parametric rules and logic. The permutations of a single product can be in the millions. ERP systems don't work that way. They typically think of products as Stock Keeping Units (SKUs) with products defined in static Bills of Materials. Need to make a variation of a product? Make another SKU. Do the math, you'll quickly understand why the SKU approach fails to align with the product variation. Enter Mass Customization.

What’s So Special About Mass Customization?

SKUs aren't practical in mass customization; there are simply too many product variants.

Mass customization systems typically use a customer-facing product configurator to capture orders and then uses order data to drive order processing, engineering, and manufacturing execution. One source of information serves all functional areas, seamlessly providing each function with the data it needs without any data loss. The mantra is: build data once and use it everywhere.

Here are some other defining characteristics of mass customization information systems:

  • End-to-End Integration: Each step is part of a seamless information workflow.

  • Product-System Fit: The information system is tailored to fit the needs of the product architecture, not the other way around.

  • Customer-focused: Configurators provide “virtual solution space” that lets customers learn about, customize, quote and order products.

  • Unified Data:  A single source of truth contains all of the product data needed for sales and manufacturing; no manual re-entry of information after configuration.

  • Modularity: Product data is "object-oriented" to maximize the reuse and minimize data creation and maintenance.

  • Testing: Automated testing and validation are critical to ensuring valid orders and production data.

  • Headless Engineering: Normal orders generate production data automatically. Engineering can focus on maximizing throughput and handling exceptions.

  • Standards-Based Data: Open data standards simplify integration with other systems, such as ERP and MES. Closed, proprietary data formats are system killers.

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Systems

A CRM is a repository for customer information and order history that can reveal information about customer preferences and buying patterns. Manufacturers can learn a lot by observing what their customers configure, and what quotes turn into orders.

Manufacturers can spot market trends, and identify new opportunities for products and profits. If nothing else, manufacturers can capture what customers search for on their websites, which can be a good clue to who their “non-customers” are, and why.


Configurators let customers easily and reliably customize and price complex products. Ideally they help the user visualize the products they want to order and make ordering easy, foolproof and fun. Configurators should always be aligned with the product. Therefore, prior to defining the configurator, you need to carefully define the product.

The product line definition creates a “solution space” - the domain of all possible variants. Keep it simple! Resist the temptation to add features and options just because you can. Keep it as simple as possible, but not more simple than that. Simplicity is the ultimate refinement.

To streamline the user experience, configurators can have dependent variables that let a user drive several choices from a single decision. Sometimes it's even best to present a particularly complex product variant as a pre-configured “pseudo SKU.” From the customer’s point of view, they are picking a single item that conceals the underlying complexity. From the factory’s point of view, it follows exactly the same logic as any other product variant.


When building a mass customization system, the core data should be rationalized into a set of “elements” that function as reusable building blocks. These elements are not products unto themselves; they are virtual subassemblies that can be recombined across multiple products. 

The mass customization engineering process is radically different from the custom process: profitability depends on velocity. Every step that can be taken out of the order processing workflow translates into more throughput, faster time to market, and more profit.

When setting out to deploy a mass customization system manufacturers often encounter two information hurdles: their existing software uses proprietary data formats that only work inside the software vendor’s “walled garden”; and data movement between applications is lossy. To overcome this, start with the end in mind: what are the outputs you need? Once you know that you are on your way to defining a true system. Process comes before products.

With mass customization, engineering happens in two discrete modes: Development and Production.

In Development Engineering the engineer analyzes the product architecture to develop “building blocks'' that can be reused across the product line. Applying that logic across interdependent elements is challenging. Data must be kept as simple as possible, and all elements developed with an eye to reuse and ease of maintenance. 

Production Engineering software runs in a “headless” state, waiting for something to do. When an order arrives, it ingests the order data and automatically generates machining data and bills of material. Because production engineering is automated, engineers can spend their time on value-adding activities that require human input.

Manufacturing Execution System

MES orchestrates the utilization of manufacturing resources so manufacturers can manage production in real time. In a mass customization scenario, the MES takes order and engineering data and then orchestrates what, when, and where the production is carried out. It applies process knowledge to find the most efficient production solution.

MES output can include shop floor routing, process metadata, and projected labor utilization. This information is then brought into a scheduling engine where it can be viewed and manipulated to optimize manufacturing activities and flow. One of the most valuable roles an MES plays is handling exceptions like expediting a damaged part so that the order can still ship on time.

Parting Thought

Mass customization is an incredibly powerful tool for creating a connection with customers and accelerating internal operations. It is not easy to implement but it can transform your business. If you're a build-to-order manufacturer we invite you to contact us to learn how Mattersmith can help.


bottom of page