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University of Michigan Professor Emeritus Yoram Koren

Mass customization

The factory of the future

Engineering Professor Emeritus Yoram Koren is a pioneer in computer-controlled manufacturing, robotics and production system design. In the interview, he talks about current trends of mass customization and individualized manufacturing, and his vision of the 21st century manufacturing industry.

What does the end customer want today and how has that been informed by digital technologies? Is there a tendency toward individualized customization?

The history of modern manufacturing began around 1850. When the automobile industry started, cars were produced locally, one at a time. In 1913, Ford’s movable assembly line was invented, which led to mass production, peaking in 1955, when only seven types of cars were produced. Transitioning later to mass customization, with more models and options selected by the customer. Now it’s pushing toward individualization. Everybody wants something different. The definition of an individual product is that it fits only one customer. The trend is going full circle.

Evolution of manufacturing paradigms


The market has changed with the social networks on the Internet. Through social networks it’s becoming easy for customers to come up with new ideas and products. The customer, however, has to be able to interface in digital form directly with the factory.

How does the customer’s role change in the new manufacturing system?

With mass production the scheduling is fixed – 10,000 products a day on the same system with the same software. But if each product is different, you have a problem of system operations. The challenge is to work with individual customers that have their own design of a product, but don’t know anything about the production system. We need something new that allows the everyday person to connect with this new factory – the factory of the future!

Will the Internet of Things (IoT) drive customization, too?

We hope that with the IoT the customer will be able to send the requirements directly to the factory through the Internet. The challenge is developing a language for how the customer can transmit his or her idea to the factory. I think that one industry has to be brave enough to be the first to do it.

What are the main challenges in designing the factory for individual production?

Producing individual products is easier with smaller products at this point. With a simple product like a shoe, or a shirt, you measure the person digitally and then make it. These are relatively simple procedures, because only one product is done on one or two machines.

What happens if you need six or seven operations like assembly, machining, and welding? You have to schedule it optimally so that all the machines will be busy all the time, and each part needs a different processing time on each machine. It is very difficult to build the software that will schedule the orders. Which product will go first?

For mass production you solve such operational problems once, and that’s it. With individualized mass manufacturing, every day brings a slightly different product and you need a new solution. You are not producing this product by itself. You are producing it simultaneously with another four or five products. What Siemens does in this context is important – among other things, they provide the interface between all the parts of the factory, between customers and suppliers, the supply chain, and the machines – everything is talking the same language. This reduces the time from order to delivery.

Please click in the image to see the whole infographic in a new tab

How will the customer communicate with this factory of the future? Is the “digital twin” a possibility?

As manufacturing moves more toward individual products individual persons will place the orders, so the factory will have to convert that sketch to numbers. A drawing is not enough to produce a product. Somebody has to commit the resources to develop software to help customers turn their ideas into digital models.

The software has to interface to all of the supply chain. It makes the supply chain very efficient. This is a new level of digitalization. It is a game changer for medium-size companies.

What are the other technologies that enable mass individualization?

AI has a major role in optimal product scheduling in the production system. AI software can group products in a way that are the best fit in geometry. You want to choose similar products to be produced together so that you can synchronize the system to optimize efficiency.

The synchronization of manufacturing operations of a variety of products produced simultaneously is critical to cost-effective production of individual products. For obtaining the optimal synchronization of the manufacturing operations on several products manufactured simultaneously it is critical that digital twin models be applied. The digital twin can accurately represent the production system operations and predict the performance of the production system, thereby optimizing its operation.

The hardware – how to build the system – is easier. Everything is done on one system in one place: mass production of individual products. With a Reconfigurable Manufacturing System (RMS) you can easily replace machines or controllers. They are integrated like modules, plug and play. The idea is that you build the architecture with gantries and conveyors, so every machine in the system can be connected to any other machine. You leave empty spaces for new machines, looking to what will be needed three to four years down the road. In the last 20 years, such factories with reserved capacity have been successfully built.

What will be the role of collaborative robots and 3D printing in manufacturing in the future?

Now, with the popularity of additive manufacturing you have a new type of specialized production. You have additive manufacturing and Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) integrated into one single system. With CNC, everything is automatic. Everything is done in one reconfigurable system with the additive machines, the CNC machines and the robotic assembly – a complete and scalable production system.

The challenge will not be to build the hardware of the factory, but how to operate it. To build the software you need to bring together all the experience in digital work that has been amassed so far. It is critical that the digital twin has a high degree of precision to optimize performance. The goal is for customers to send in their orders to local factories and then the system will automatically schedule the production of each individual product.

Yoram Koren in 1973 with the world’s first adaptive control for CNC machine tools.

Faster availability, high quality and a good price – is it all possible with individualized mass manufacturing?

Yes, if everything is done on one system. The idea is to enhance, to increase the responsiveness of the system if the market wants a new product or a different quantity of products. One needs to integrate the production of everything in one place, one factory. The customer sends the requirements, and he gets the product in a timely manner. We predict that this will be the norm ten years from now because the technology is available.

What trends can we expect in individualized and customized manufacturing in the next 20 years?

It will be good for local economies because people will want the product right away, not wait two months to get it from China. There will be many localized factories producing individual products for people, which will create new local manufacturing jobs that will sustain for generations.

Many software technologies have to be further developed for operations in the system to be automatic. Ideally, the software design will schedule products to be produced, so that the system operations are optimized.

One example is an open-hardware platform to which individual products are interfaced. Much like apps for the smartphone are written to fit the platform or operating system, we need equivalent access to product design so that third-party companies can contribute options for products that are interfaced to the open platform.

An example of “hardware apps” can be seen when designing a new car interior. We talk about autonomous driving, but look at the inside of the vehicle. Nothing has changed in the last 100 years inside the car. A 1910 Ford had a driver, a passenger next to him and three passengers in the back seat. It’s the same way today.

You need the main functions of the car, but the inside is empty space for you to build the way you want. You have all the interfaces and then people are selecting hardware modules from the Internet. Third-party manufacturers can design desks, or dog seats, or any other items that a customer wants that will have standard ways of attaching it to the chassis.

There are so many interesting directions that industry can go in. You have to believe in the concepts and prepare the technology.

The customer sends the requirements, and he gets the product in a timely manner. We predict that this will be the norm ten years from now.
Professor Yoram Koren
Yoram Koren with a CNC controller that he designed based on a Commodore Pet Computer (4 kB memory) 1978
Leane Clifton is a Primafila Correspondent and a freelance journalist in New York City.
Picture credits: All pictures provided by Yoram Koren