Interview with Mass Customization guru Frank Piller, Part 1

Following on from our series of interviews with presenters from the MIT Smart Customisation Seminar, we now have been honored with an interview with one of the organizers Frank Piller.
frank piller
Frank Piller is a chair professor of management at the Technology & Innovation Management Group of RWTH Aachen University, Germany, one of Europe’s leading institutes of technology. He is also a founding faculty member of the MIT Smart Customization Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. His recent research focuses on value co-creation between businesses and customers/users, and the interface between innovation management, operations management, and marketing.

I asked Frank a few questions to get his considered opinion on mass customization.

Frank, what brought you to focus on Mass Customization in the first place?

I first realized the mass customization phenomenon by reading Joe Pine’s book as a graduate student working on a paper for my master’s degree (in 1993). One year later, I was in New York City, visiting one of the first Levi’s stores selling its first version of mass customized jeans. There I thought, “Hey, they are doing it really” and was hooked by the concept. When I continued my education with a Ph.D. in Operations Management, I decided to study mass customization from a management perspective in more detail. After placing the first article on it in the German edition of the Harvard Business review (1996), I also got some great feedback from managers on the topic. Since then, I am continuously working on this topic.

So you have been researching, writing and working in the field of customer co-creation for almost 15 years! What do you see as the greatest advancements or most innovative progressions in your time observing the field?

Over the years, I recognized three cycles of mass customization. This first was in the 1990s when people looked on it as a production technologies, still yery much rooted in the CIM-Thinking that originally lead Alvin Toffler to deliver the first modern description of mass customization in the late 1970s. During this time, mass customization was very much rooted in business-to-business markets. Machine tool makers like Sandvik from Scandinavia opened the first large scale mass customization businesses.

The second wave happed with the internet revolution (starting in 1998). Finally firms could connect their flexible manufacturing technologies with customers efficiently. This cycle brought us many great examples of mass customization, but also quite some disappointments. Often, start-ups during this time just opened, as you could do it, not as customers needed it. But some great examples of mass customization survived, like NikeID (opened for the only reason as former Nike CEO Phil Knight wanted to do “something in the internet”, and so they selected mass customization as this promised to cause little channel conflicts with established retailers).

In the following years, the internet-based mass customization offerings matured, and many more followed. The third wave of mass customization is happening now: It is driven by companies like Ponoko, Zazzle, Spreadshirt, Lulu, Shapeways, and many others, which offer design, manufacturing, and retail capacity to everyone. So in this third stage, people are not just customizing to fulfill their own needs, but to create (micro) niche markets and serve them efficiently. Here, I think, we are just at the beginning and will see many more application soon.

How do you see the increase in access to tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers changing the field of mass customization?

While these flexible technologies have been discussed since many years as core enabling technologies for mass customization, and have been implemented within factories also for quite a while, the new thing is that these technologies are becoming widely available for every interested user. Using one does not require any longer a high capital investment, but can be done on a per-use base (Donal Reddington, author of the great blog “”, called this “manufacturing-as-a-service”), often using an internet based service where you just upload your designs.

These new players drive a “democratization of manufacturing”, and also totally new applications. Especially laser cutters have become a commodity, and access to them, at least in larger cities, is almost as ubiquitous as copy machines. People start to experiment with these machines and develop new applications. I believe that we are just starting to realize the effects this third revolution in production.

More from Frank next, or check out his site on Mass Customization, Customer Co-Creation & Open Innovation

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