Archive for the ‘Customization’ Category


Custom-made bikes are a very small slice of the US bike market. According to The Atlantic, the vast majority of bikes sold in the US are made in Asia and a handful of companies dominate the market (America’s Rebel Band of Custom-Bike Builders, Apr 3).

Though thriving, the 100 or so builders in the hand-built bicycle scene make up about 3.3 percent of the overall U.S. bike industry, which was valued at $6.1 billion in 2012 and is sourced almost completely overseas, according to bicycle industry expert Jay Townley with the Gluskin-Townley market research firm and a report by the National Bicycle Dealers Association. In 2011, 99 percent of bicycles sold in the U.S. were assembled in Asia—93 percent in China and six percent in Taiwan.

Additionally, just four companies—Dorel Industries, Accell Group, Trek Bicycle Corporation, and Specialized Bicycle Components—own about half of the 140 bicycle brands available in this country, including Schwinn, Cannondale, Raleigh, Gary Fisher, Trek, and Specialized, Townley said.

The article goes on to note that while small, those custom builders are responsible for a lot of the innovation in the industry. Because their work is premised on doing something unique, they are inclined to take more chances than a larger firm. So what does it take for these small guys to be successful?


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3012591-slide-slide-2-177-feature-the-wireAt first glance, simple products like metal baskets or paint brushes should not be made in America. These should be simple to make, the product should be standard, so production should go to a low-cost location. But that ain’t necessarily so. A pair of recent articles discusses how some small US manufacturers are managing to compete in seemingly staid, boring industries.

The first story is from Fast Company and focuses on Marlin Steel, a firm that once focused on wire baskets for bagel shops (The Road To Resilience: How Unscientific Innovation Saved Marlin Steel, Jul/Aug). That’s a business that eventually went to hell as cheap imports came into the market. The fortunes of the company changed with an order from Boeing.

The job that rescued Marlin Steel was small–20 baskets, a $500 order. Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. “It was an engineer from Boeing,” he says. “He didn’t think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets.” The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn’t used to–with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, “if the bagel didn’t fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect.” The Boeing engineer needed the basket’s size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. “I told him, ‘I’ll have to charge you $24 a basket,'” says Greenblatt. “He said, ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?'”

It turns out that the guy from Boeing was not alone in wanting custom baskets for use in a factory. Further, lots of other buyers were much more concerned with getting just the right basket really soon than with whether the price was as cheap has possible. The image above is something used in a GM factory to hold pump housings when they are being cleaned. (more…)

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The best time of summer is about to start in 4 days: the 100th edition of the Tour de France (TdF)!  Time for an operations view behind the screens of the first and only Australian world-tour team: Orica GreenEdge.  As a starter, here’s just a beautiful example of visual project management:

This is the master spreadsheet which sits outside of the admin offices. It shows the schedule of every event, every staff member, every team vehicle. Susan Stewart (David McKenzie’s wife) is the Logistics Manager and obviously very handy with Excel.

This is the master spreadsheet which sits outside of the admin offices. It shows the schedule of every event, every staff member, every team vehicle. Susan Stewart (David McKenzie’s wife) is the Logistics Manager and obviously very handy with Excel.

Before getting into team management, consider team strategy: (more…)

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I just finished teaching Operations Strategy where we discuss many interesting decisions, including the impact of design complexity on outsourcing and the mechanisms to foster innovation in existing organizations.  The StreetScooter is a project that hits on both these topics: this is a modular car (not a scooter!) that is designed and manufactured in Germany through collaboration by more than 50 companies.  A prototype of the 5,000 euro vehicle with a 120km/hr top speed has been presented and production in Europe is slated for 2013.  Here’s the 1min promotional video:

In class we discuss electronic designs as perfect candidates for modular design: after all, each electrical connection only needs a few variables (e.g., volt, amps, and frequency). These variables are easily specified and define the interchangeable interfaces that then form the input or constraints in the design of each module (using, say, CAD programs).  This gave rise to the disintegration of the computer industry and all the wonders that followed.


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Each year we design new ‘kits’ (uniforms) for my cycling team and have them manufactured.  During that quest, I’ve started to put premiums not only on quality but also on minimum order size and response time.  The typical leadtime for custom pro-level cycling wear is about 8 weeks and several manufacturers have minimum order sizes of 10 units (which is not helpful to get replacement kits after the inevitable crash).

Like many other industries, the textile industry has been digitizing to allow smaller batch sizes and faster turn-around-times.  Digital inkjet printing became the norm for small batch sizes.  Sublimation still the higher quality but for larger batches.  Apparently, the technology has now sufficiently advanced to bring the same flexibility to higher volumes (and hence lower cost per unit).

According to industry expert Debra Cobb, high speed developments now have led to new printing capabilities:

At ITMA in September 2011, the array of inkjet printing developments generated strong interest amongst attendees. While high-volume printing is generally considered to be better than 200 m2/hr, new printers have moved way beyond this benchmark.

Stork Prints highlighted their new Sphene 24 digital printer, which is said to realize speeds up to 555 m2/hr on virtually any fabric; including tricky substrates such as polyamide/elastane swimwear knits. Durst Phototechnik AG launched its Kappa 180 inkjet printer, said to reach speeds of over 600 m2/hr with a resolution of 1056 dpi x 600 dpi.

Xennia Technology’s Osiris high speed digital printing system, also introduced at ITMA, is said to be one of the fastest inkjet printing systems in the world. It is capable of printing up to 2880 m2/hr, with up to 8 colours; its speed gives mass market fashion printers a competitive edge by allowing them to react quickly to new fashion trends.


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Few things would be more luxurious than a truly custom-made product that is tailored to your every desire. That, of course, is expensive but there is a medium ground between a truly custom product and something that is merely off the rack. Mass customization promises customers a sort of unique offering. I say “sort of unique” because mass customization programs usually are built off a modular product architecture so they inherently constrained customers to not mess with the interfaces between modules. On the other hand, they usually offer a wide range of choice for each module. The wonders of combinatorics then quick in and the customer can choose from possibly millions of alternatives. Another customer may be able to make the exact same choices, but the chances of that happening are ultimately very slim.

And that gets us to Burberry Bespoke, the mass customization program that the British trench coat maker recently launched. Here is how the Wall Street Journal (Mink or Fox? The Trench Gets Complicated, Nov 3) described the program.

Called Burberry Bespoke, the program is a full-scale attempt at “mass customization,” a long-time goal of retailers and unusual for a designer fashion house. Customers select the cut of their trench coat, the fabric, the color, and then navigate through options such as bronze-studded sleeves, bridle leather cuff straps, mink linings and shearling collars.

Bit by bit, the screen assembles the virtual trench coat as specified. The real-life version arrives in four to eight weeks, in a box the size of a human torso, from Burberry’s factory in Yorkshire, England (leather trenches are dispatched from Italy). The tag displays a special limited-edition number, plus a clear designation in block letters: “Bespoke.”

The company estimates that there are about 12 million different combinations that can be ordered. The graphic above shows one possibility and the video below includes some screen shots of the web site.

Vodpod videos no longer available.


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How do you get replacement parts? In a developed country the answer is pretty simple. For some things (e.g., car parts), you may need to go through a dealer or specialized retailer. For others, you may be able to just stop by a general hardware store. But what if you are in a developing nation? Then you might have to get creative.

Markplace had a fun report about craftsmen in Mozambique carving replacement parts (like the gear above) out of ebony (Ebony woodcarvers learn to craft machine parts, Oct 3).

Young Makonde sculptors apprentice for years, sanding and polishing the works of their teachers. They study the ornate canes and traditional busts that are still a bestseller to tourists. But the expert woodcarvers are also finding a market for more “functional” sculptures. Manuel Xavier is a customer here at the woodcarvers’ collective. He repairs gas stoves for a living but has trouble finding spare parts.

MANUEL XAVIER: Here in the north, there is a lack of equipment for gas stoves.

A month ago, Xavier got a call from an unhappy customer. She said that the knobs on her stove had broken off.

XAVIER: I told the woman who owns the stove, “That part isn’t sold here in the North.” Not in stores, or anywhere else. So I decided to have them made out of Pau Preto.

Pau Preto is what the locals call the wood in Portuguese. In English, it’s known as African blackwood, or ebony. …

And versatile. Sculptors have carve parts for espresso makers, sewing machines, and motorcycles. For film projectors, and even computers. Patterson says that storekeepers in Mozambique don’t have the capital to keep spare parts in stock.

The article goes on to report that doing replacement parts is harder than doing creative sculptures. For the latter, there is no formal standard of perfection. Replacement parts, however, must conform to what they replace for them to be useful.

It’s a cute story, but does it have any relevance in the West? We’ll never have hand carved replacement parts, but what if they could printed on demand?


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