How Industry 4.0 Supports Flexibility and Mass Customisation

“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.”

That’s a quote from Henry Ford, the founder of the Ford Motor Company. It’s a famous quote, but what does it have to do with flexible manufacturing and mass customisation? Does it have any relevance in the era of Industry 4.0, and is there anything we can learn from an idea that appears so outdated?

According to his autobiography, Ford made the famous comment in a meeting with his team in 1909. The comment was part of an announcement that the Ford Motor Company would from then on only be making one model of car – the Model T.

Ford’s thinking at the time was clear. In another part of his autobiography, Ford writes:

“No business can improve unless it pays the closest possible attention to complaints and suggestions. If there is any defect in service then that must be instantly and rigorously investigated, but when the suggestion is only as to style, one has to make sure whether it is not merely a personal whim that is being voiced.”

So, Ford’s approach was to get the design of the product right and then manufacture that product and that product alone.

It was a successful approach, too. When he made the famous “any colour so long as it’s black” quote, Ford was producing just over 10,000 cars a year. Ten years later the company produced half-a-million Model T Fords and five years after that it was producing two million.

100+ Years On

Industry 4.0 technologies are changing the reality from Ford’s era unlike any other technologies that have come before. This is because it is now possible to meet the demands of customers for customisation while also getting the design right.

It’s also possible to have a flexible production process where different products with different tools and moulds can be produced on the same production line. For example, dynamically programmed robots with interchangeable tooling enable manufacturers to quickly and effectively switch between models being manufactured with negligible efficiency loss.

Industry 4.0 technologies, processes, and ways of thinking make this possible.

Crucially, it’s also possible to do all the above while maintaining productivity and operational efficiency. As a result, new profit-making opportunities become a reality.

Non-Linear Product Lifecycle

Back in Ford’s day, designers designed products with minimal input from consumers. Engineers then got the design and production process right as well as making that production process as effective and efficient as possible.

The product then left the production line and entered the distribution chain, with little connection between the two.

In other words, the connection between the customer, the manufacturing process, and design process, was minimal.

Industry 4.0 turns this completely on its head. Sensors and communication technologies mean machines in the production line can interact, collect data, and issue instructions autonomously. These processes can be integrated with the supply and distribution chains, connecting other units of the business and driving efficiency savings even further.

However, the real gamechanger when it comes to flexibility and mass customisation is the use of sensors in end products. With this technology, manufacturers can create digital twins of products being used by customers in the real world, with the digital twin receiving real-time updates from sensors on the physical products.

This offers a number of benefits, including predictive maintenance and making faults easier and faster to repair.

One of the biggest benefits, however, is how the use of sensors and digital twin technologies can influence the design process. Product designers no longer have to rely on gut instinct, limited research, or outdated usage data.

With Industry 4.0 technologies like digital twins, designers can use real-time data to produce products that customers really want.

In other words, the product lifecycle becomes non-linear.

This makes it possible to customise products for different segments of customer, improving customer relations and the customer experience. Even single unit production runs are possible, i.e. true product personalisation.

What Can We Learn from Ford’s Famous Quote?

There is a connection between Ford’s approach in the early 1900s and the opportunities presented by Industry 4.0 today. Specifically, two of the biggest things that Ford got right back in 1909 was to:

  • Focus on the customer – he understood that the vast majority of his customers preferred to have a car they could afford and that they could rely on rather than one where they could specify a particular colour
  • Focus on profitability – Ford also understood he had to be able to deliver on the above expectations of his customers in a way that was profitable for his company

Hence, the get-it-right-and-then-make-them-all-the-same approach.

Manufacturers need to follow Ford’s lead, albeit with a 21st-century twist.

  • Focus on the customer – customers still want products that work, but they also want products tailored to their needs, i.e. they want customised products
  • Focus on profitability – manufacturers need to be able to offer flexibility and customisation to remain competitive, but they must do so profitably

Industry 4.0 technologies make both the above possible: sensors, automation, robotics, machine learning, data analysis (particularly anomaly detection), digital twins, equipment integration, and more.

This is manufacturing’s next evolutionary step.

Charlie Murphy

Charlie is SL Control’s Factory Automation Manager. He has over 24 years' industrial experience including in the Consumer (Electronics) and Medical Device industries. He has extensive experience partnering with R&D organisations in the design, development and procurement of high-volume automation requirements to support manufacturing capacity and NPIs. Charlie’s team specialises in Industry 4.0 Digital Maturity Assessments and developing technical roadmaps and value propositions.

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