Bart L. MacCarthy

B_MacCarthy Professor of Operations Management
Nottingham University Business School
Jubilee Campus, Wollaton Road,


Mass Customization – Does it Exist?/Are we there yet?

It is now almost a quarter of a century since the publication of the book1 that challenged the dominant 20th century paradigm of Mass Production and heralded the arrival Mass Customization (MC) – a new era in how customized products would be produced on a mass scale. From the outset there were strong advocates for MC in both the practitioner and academic communities but also sceptics, and some advising caution2. From the outset there was also a plethora of definitions on what constituted MC. In particular the meaning of ‘customization’ and its enactment in different sectors proved much more complex than first imagined. The dominant literature on MC emanated from the Operations community with only a sideways glance at Marketing.

So has it happened? The truth is that the revolution has not happened in the way imagined. Of course one can point to many examples where some level of customization is offered but many major product sectors have remained stubbornly ‘volume driven’. For instance the clothing sector, which was identified as having strong potential for Mass Customization, remains essentially a volume business, dominated by retailers and brand owners that control supply global networks3 – only in rare cases are we customizing clothing. Time to market has proved a stronger operational imperative than the offer of customized products.

Here we examine critically why the Mass Customization revolution has not happened the way many predicted, what has happened, and what is emerging in the new era of digitally-enabled operations.  MC is analyzed from the perspectives of strategy, operations, and marketing. For instance the burden of choice, well known in marketing, militates against providing high levels of customization for consumer products.  Some of the strongest examples of MC occur in fact in industrial B2B markets, which is explainable when a wider lens is used.

But are we still wedded to a mid- 20th century Mass Production paradigm? Not quite. We see burgeoning levels of product variety and high levels of new product introduction in many sectors 4, 5. The automotive sector for instance has come up with innovative ways to meet the desires of highly heterogeneous customer populations whilst maintaining the economies of scale required in a volume business 6, 7.

Most exciting are the massive changes taking place with the digital revolution 7. For instance, with omni-channel retailing the customer can order anytime, anywhere, on any device and request fulfilment in a myriad of different ways, which can be seen as form of service customization. The retailer’s challenge is do it cost effectively on a mass scale. Mass Customization needs to be reinterpreted for a truly digital landscape. We examine the big shapers of the digital era – mobile access, cloud technologies, cloud-based serves, and most importantly the power of platforms and how they will shape the customization landscape in the future for product-service bundles.

  1. Pine, B. J. (1993). Mass customization: the new frontier in business competition. Harvard Business Press.
  2. MacCarthy, B., Brabazon, P. G., & Bramham, J. (2003). Fundamental modes of operation for mass customization. International Journal of Production Economics, 85(3), 289-304.
  3. MacCarthy, B. L., & Jayarathne, P. G. S. A. (2013). Supply network structures in the international clothing industry: differences across retailer types. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 33(7), 858-886. (Highly commended paper award).
  4. MacCarthy, B. L., (2013), An Analysis of Order Fulfilment Approaches for Delivering Variety and Customization, International Journal of Production Research,  51(23-24), 7329-7344.
  5. Brabazon P & MacCarthy B L (2012), Investigating a long tail in retail vehicle sales, Omega: The International Journal of Management Science, Vol 40(3), pp 302-313.
  6. Brabazon, P. G., MacCarthy, B., Woodcock, A., & Hawkins, R. W. (2010). Mass customization in the automotive industry. Production and Operations Management, 19(5), 489-502.
  7. Brabazon, P. G.  &  MacCarthy B. L., (2017) The Automotive Order to Delivery Process: How Should it Be Configured For Different Markets?, European Journal of Operational Research, Vol 263 (1), 142–157.  
  8. MacCarthy, B. L.; Blome, C; Olhager, J; Srai, J; Zhao, X. (2016) Supply Chain Evolution – Theory, Concepts and Science, International Journal of Operations and Production Management, Vol. 36 (12), pp. 1696 – 1718.  (Highly commended paper award)

Short biography:

Professor MacCarthy has been a full Professor of Operations Management in the Business School at the University of Nottingham since 2003. After an early career in industry he undertook his PhD at the University of Bradford in the early 1980s, followed by postdoctoral work in the Mathematics Institute at Oxford University. He joined Nottingham in the late 1980’s. He teaches at Executive, MBA, and Masters levels on operations, supply chain, and project management. He developed the Executive Masters programme in Global Supply Chain Management with Rolls-Royce at Nottingham.

Bart’s research spans the analysis, modelling and management of operational systems in a wide range of sectors combining both qualitative and quantitative methodologies. He is particularly interested in research studies that combine the analysis of practice with models. He has led major research projects on effective decision support in planning and scheduling, order fulfilment modelling Mass Customization, international supply chain management. He has gained very significant research funding over his career from the UK reach councils, the European Union and industry. Currently he is the Principal Investigator at Nottingham on the EPSRC-funded multi-University grant examining new perspectives on modelling robustness and resilience in complex supply networks. Current research interests also include the impact of digitisation and distributed cloud technologies on the supply chain, as well as decision models for omni-channel retail fulfilment.

Bart has researched and consulted with a range of companies in automotive, aerospace, engineering, textiles and clothing, consumer products, food and logistics. He has published widely in the Operations Management and Management Science literatures. He is European Editor for the International Journal of Production Economics (IJPE) and serves on the editorial board of a number of other academic journals including the International Journal of Operations and Production Management. He was President of the European Chapter of the Decision Sciences Institute (EDSI) from July 2011 until June 2012 and serves on DSI’s Strategic Planning for International Affairs Committee. He is a board member of the International Foundation for Production Research (IFPR).