How to design for mass customization

The Basics & Material Choice

The Basics

Mass customization is an empowering proposition for consumers and designers. Once the processes are understood, the possibilities are only limited by one’s own imagination. There are several factors that will make a design more mass customization friendly. A good designer will consider many of these factors when making choices and refining their own designs.

Material Choice

A single object may be made from a variety of materials. Often time’s more than one material can create a similar object; a table can have a wood top or glass top. Each material has a standard of measurement in which it is gauged. Sheet goods, for example, usually come in standard sizes of 4’x4’ or 5’x5’ available in thickness ranging from 1/8” to 2”. This is a common sizing for anything flat, from glass or sheet metal to plywood, sheet veneers, plastic and solid surfaces. Block measurements, such as wood, plastic or glass use the processing method to define size. Each material with have it’s own grade and thickness associated with it. These block sizes tend to be smaller in width and length, but generally thicker. Hardwood is measured using the quarter system, and comes in rough dimensions from a wood mill in 1” to 1 1/5” thick, with a length up to 18’ long depending on the species of wood.

Thickness & Surface


Making parts thicker than the standard size offerings can be done by glue up or fastening process. RTA furniture is cost effective because it doesn’t need a secondary process that requires labor to make materials thicker. However, solid furniture may have a higher value and be more durable, making it more desirable. Most materials like wood, glass, plastic and solid surface can be fused together.


The more an object can stay true to its material, the simpler the finishing process. The use of sheet goods, like laminates and veneers, which come in a multitude of options and colors, is one way to enhance an object's customability. Paint is also very versatile finish solution; you can use low cost materials and enhance it with paint.

Maximizing Yield & Cellular vs. Batch

Maximizing Yield
The number of parts you can yield from your material depends upon how many parts you can nest. This can be a sophisticated formula; however sticking to simple sizing principles will make a significant impact. Once you determine the material choice, designing to maximize yield is critical. Using a 4’x8’ sheet for example, divisions of 24” minus a cutting head kerf will work well. Sizes of 36” would create excess waste. In a 5’x5’ sheet, sizes of 30” minus a cutting kerf work well. Keep these size and material factors in consideration when you’re designing. Also consider using “wasted” space by developing complimentary products that can be processed simultaneously or batch them together as inventory for later processing.
Cellular vs. Batch
Nesting products can be done with a couple of different approaches. A cellular nest has everything the designed object needs on a single run, while a batch nest uses several separate production runs with repeating parts for multiple objects. Time and labor factors need to be taken into consideration for a design’s cost effectiveness.

Ease of Modification & Lead-time Factors

Ease of Modification
The design should lend itself to variations, multiple sizes or parametric modification. A parametric design is a way of linking dimensions and variables to a created geometry in a way that can be scaled. The values might change and in turn this will change and affect the entire design. The parametric itself is the variable that all other variables are related too. This allows for extremely quick modification to a single part and thus affecting and entire object. An end consumers requests and specifications can then be easily made. Tasks like changing chair heights, table widths, etc., should be a relatively simple procedure.
Lead-time Factors
Lead-time is the number of days or weeks it takes from the point of purchase to when the product is ready to ship or deliver. The choices you make as a designer can effect the lead-time. Availability of materials and processes is the first step in understanding lead times for a given design. Regionally some materials and or processes might be more readily available than others. If you need to special order from a specific distributor you need to know the order timelines and minimum quantities. If you are specifying something exotic and only need a small quantity, the pricing can be high and the timing long. Also the number of processes your object will need and the complexity of the processes will affect the lead-time.

Logistics & Shipping


Before a design arrives at the customer’s door, it will need to travel and there are restrictions to consider. Problems arise if objects are too large to fit through doorways or unable to move up a flight of stairs. Also, certain express carrier trucks have size and weight restrictions. The factors can be overcome by good design solutions.


Finally, shipping or the method in which the item travels to the consumer is part of the design experience. Designing an object that needs to travel assembles versus non-assembled is a critical decisions. A RTA product ships easier and is less expensive than an assemble one, but it must be easy to put the parts together and require a minimum number of tools. If the product exceeds certain dimensions the shipping can be more expensive than the item itself. Oversize items also have a propensity to be expensive to ship and damage easily. Though last in the process, shipping considerations should be part of the overall design process.

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