Auto Manifesto

March 10, 2008

Mass Customization Gathering Steam

From the early days of the automobile until recently, there were basically two routes to a custom automobile. You either had to pay big money for one the way you wanted it, or you had to do it yourself. The end result is that today there are more and easier options.

As an example, think of the coachbuilders of the early 20th century. If you were wealthy you simply had them design and build a body for your chassis. Likewise, if you wanted to modify your car in the 1950’s you would do a lot of the work yourself. Tinkering in the garage, fabricating, machining, and welding in the shop, and putting it all together to create your very own ‘special’.

You had to pay with either cash or sweat or both.

Then came the folks who had the knowledge and experience of so-called ‘hot rodding’ who took things up a notch. They built turn-key limited runs of tuned automobiles for prices that, while still considerably higher than mass market, were usually less than stratospheric. Some of these cars were available through established OEM dealer networks. These were names like Shelby, Callaway, Saleen, Alpina, AMG, Brabus, and RUF.

The 1990’s saw import tuners take off and the aftermarket industry’s rise to dizzying heights which continues today. Automotive Aftermarket Industry Week is now the biggest event in Las Vegas each year.

Many automobile manufacturers now offer aftermarket parts through their own performance brands such as SVT, Goodwrench, Mopar, TRD, MazdaSpeed, Nismo, and so on. Toyota’s Scion brand even installs many accessories at the port right per buyer’s spec before shipping it to the dealer.

Now we’re starting to see high end automobile manufacturers offer personalization programs. Ferrari One-to-One and Lamborghini Ad Personam are but two examples among at least half a dozen which let customers choose from a variety of interior and exterior colors, materials, and design elements.

What’s Next?

It won’t be long before the ability to personalize your car before it’s built trickles down to everyday vehicles. The market demands it. The ability to spec your car just the way you want it from a huge variety of options is coming.

We’re going to see greater input from customers, more component choices, and more standards for ease of interchangeability and certification. Think of how common it is to see aftermarket wheels. Why are they so prevalent? Because they’re among the most interchangeable and visible parts on a car.

Modular designs, rapid manufacturing, less finished goods in inventory, and an overall bigger pie (market) is what I see coming down the pike. The result is going to be more affordable and more convenient customization that takes place further up the supply chain.

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