Mass Customisation

Five decades after E.F. Schumacher1 wrote about the problems of mass production and the need for small scale manufacturing, it’s starting to happen. Although the UK is still dependent on mass produced goods, a recent trend in ‘distributed manufacturing’ has the potential to be the future Schumacher was advocating.

In the International Journal of Production Research, Jagjit Srai and colleagues explain that since the factories replaced craft production during the Industrial Revolution, advances in productivity has come through standardisation and economies of scale. However “recent breakthroughs in production and infrastructure technologies …have enabled smaller (and micro scale) manufacture much closer to the end-user.”2

With distributed manufacturing, products are made locally and connected to a global network so you can get the same product at opposite sides of the world. It’s based on the ability to share designs on the internet and use automatic manufacturing machines to get consistent results each time.

The fashion industry are using these technologies to explore new business models and a current trend is mass customisation. Adidas have been testing a model using a ‘Knit for You’ concept shop in Berlin, selling customised sweaters on demand. They provided an interactive shopping experience using 3D scanners to take body measurements and automatic knitting machines to create sweaters in-store in 4 hours, as shown in the video below.

The Knit For You website claims the project is about “empowering individuals with interactive technology to co-create bespoke garments”.3 The Corporate Strategy says that on-demand production will reduce risk and increase profits. There will be less need for discounted end-of-season sales and more products will be sold at full price.4

Instead of ’empowering individuals’ by giving customers freedom to design their own garments, Jos de Mul, professor of Philosphical Anthropology points out that parameters for customisation are set by professional designers.5 And a study by design researcher Cindy Kohtala, concluded that “personalisation is batch and modular rather than unique”.6 The Adidas store supports these statements, because customers had the choice of camouflage or spiderweb patterns in a limited range of colours. However customers may not feel restricted by this, and may even see it as a positive, because styles that have been “‘validated’ by a chain of professionals … provides reassurance that the item is desirable and appropriate”.7

The video below demonstrates the concept of designing sweaters within set parameters.

The 3D body scanners and automatic knitting machines used in Adidas’ Knit For You store require high capital investment. This means that the technology is inaccessible to most amateur knitters, unless they are being a consumer. Schumacher8 was wary of industrial machines that require intensive capital expenditure, beyond the reach of “small people” saying:

“If our technology has been created mainly by the capitalist system, is it not probable that it bears the marks of it’s origin, a technology for the few at the expense of the masses, a technology of exploitation, a technology that is class-orientated, undemocratic, in-human, and also un-ecological and non-conservationist?”
E.F. Schumacher, 1979

Local makers could join together to buy the technology as a shared resource. Although Fabinne Serrière found the initial cost of buying and running a second hand automatic knitting machine was $100,000, so it is beyond the budget for many communities. Fabinne managed to raise the funds through a kickstarter campaign for custom mathematical scarves.


Key Findings

  • Companies retain control over production
  • Using the technology is a closed system, you can’t choose do some of the processes by hand yourself and use technology tools for others.
  • It provides some of the benefits of homemade clothes i.e. perfectly fitting and personalised, without citizens needing to develop a skill or it being time consuming.
  • Involves people in the design process but keeps them within the consumer role.
  • The technology is not affordable for DIY makers to use independently because of high capital investment.
  • Companies will offer style guides and due to anxieties about fashion this may be preferable for many
  1. Shumacher, E.F., 1979. Good work. London: Cape
  2. Srai, J.S., Kumar, M., Graham. G., Philips, W., Tooze. J., Ford. S., Beecher, P., Raj, B., Gregory, M., Tiwari, M.K., Ravi, B., Neely, A., Shankar, R., Charnley, F., Timari, A., 2016. Distributed Manufacturing: Scope, Challenges and Opportunites. International Journal of Production Research [e-journal] Available through: University of Brighton Library Site http://libguides.brighton.ac.uk/home [Accessed 8 May 2017]
  3. Adidas, 2017a. Adidas Knit For You. [online] Available at: http://adidasknitforyou.com [Accessed 25 March 2017]
  4. Adidas, 2017b. Corporate Strategy. [online] Available at: http://www.adidas-group.com/ en/investors/strategy/group-strategy/#/strategische-saulen/ [Accessed 25 March 2017]
  5. de Mul, J., 2011. Redesigning Design. In: van Abel, B., Evers, L., Klaassen, R. AND Troxler, P., 2011. Open Design Now: Why Design Cannot Remain Exclusive,
 Amsterdam: BIS Publishers
  6. Kohtala, C., 2015. Addressing sustainability in research on distributed production: An integrated literature review. Journal of Cleaner Production, 106, pp.654-668.
  7. Twigger Holroyd. H., 2017. Folk Fashion – Understanding Homemade Clothes. London: I.B.Tauris
  8. Shumacher, E.F., 1979. Good work. London: Cape