What’s the difference?

It’s hard to say. If you grew up steeped in the age of mass production, it’s hard to imagine any other way.

“Mass Production” means large amounts of standardized product are made using assembly lines, automated robotic machines and human labour.

“Mass Customization” is defined as the design, engineering and production of large amounts of product on assembly lines using robotic machines and human labour.

Hard to see the difference? Maybe at first glance.

The Ford Motor Company famously popularized mass production on the eve of the Great War, in 1913. Fast forward to 1948, post-World War II, and folks like the McDonald brothers applied the Ford model to the restaurant business.

Mass production continued scaling to titanic proportions to improve productivity, lower prices and advance quality – the more automation, the swifter the processes up and down the line. Businesses moved their mass production facilities offshore, to take advantage of lower energy, labour and tax rates.

Mass customization, by contrast, is in its infancy. There’s no long and storied history — yet.

So here’s one way to think about the difference. Mass production has passed its zenith – exactly when that happened is open to debate, but the demise of the mass production model is well underway.

At the same time, the way we work, play, learn and consume have also changed dramatically. The one-size-fits-all model that worked so beautifully for so many decades has had its day. People are demanding new products and services that are tailored to their needs, with greater variety and greater frequency. Pre-packaged and pre-conceived? No thanks. Who wants something plucked from some conveyor belt or assembly line?

Technology, of course, drives this demand for change — the kind of change that mass production can’t keep up with.

But custom is expensive, isn’t it? The way we’ve always done it, yes. Customizing has been expensive, because of risk — from design, engineering and prototypes, to manufacturing, including breakage, waste, and the sourcing of materials. Then there are the skills required … the list goes on, but you already know about customizing, and how these costs are factored into pricing.

Let’s be frank. We’ve grown spoiled over the decades, used to cheap mass produced products that are easy on the pocketbook.

Welcome to the Age of Aquarius (cue up song).

The age of mass production wasn’t an overnight sensation. It took time to develop. Enormous creative thinking was required to design products that could be mass produced, and persuade consumers that these goods and services were desirable. Superior, in fact.

Likewise, the age of mass customization needs time to develop. It isn’t yet a household term. It will be, though, once society recognizes it as the way to do things. Once we realize it’s the fit – the solution — we’ve all been waiting for.

In the meantime, watch for companies that are investing in the technologies and processes of mass customization; these companies are challenging perceptions, teasing us with new delights that make what we’ve settled for in the mass production era less and less appealing. Stodgy, in fact.

What about the notion that custom is time-consuming, costly, and finicky? That will also disappear.

People who embrace mass customization and the companies that invest in it have the winds of change at their back. They know that tomorrow’s challenges cannot be solved by using a 100-year-old mass production model.

So, if the future belongs to mass customization, what does that mean for the construction industry?

Good question.

In construction, every project is a custom project.

Think about it. No two projects are the same.

Site conditions differ, site to site (identical buildings built 100 feet apart can have entirely different site conditions). Clients differ, building codes differ, the layout and use of space differs. Even if a project is built exactly to the client’s instructions and the architects’ specifications as set out in the “issued for construction” drawings, these are obsolete by the time construction is completed.

Construction could be — should be — the flagship industry for mass customization.

Clinging to the idea that using a mass production model can solve the problems posed by an inherently customizing enterprise like construction is not only outdated, it’s incredibly costly.

And being on the wrong side of the productivity curve costs us all.

It’s time we walked away from the old familiar mass-production model and headed in the right direction.

Welcome to age of Aquarius (cue music and fade).