Shoe shoppers these days can have their pick of any color, materials from around the world, and styles conceived by thousands of designers. But when it comes to an exact fit, buyers usually have just one choice: their shoe size.
Headphones and sunglasses are also manufactured to broad size outlines, and consumers can spend hundreds of dollars for products that don’t wear well on their head.
Now, technologies including 3-D scanning are bringing consumer products companies closer to developing custom-fit versions of mass-produced goods. But despite the futuristic promise in the field, few products have yet broken through to a broad audience.
“It’s something everybody’s chasing in different ways,” said Bill McInnis, who leads Reebok Future, a division working on manufacturing advances for the Boston company.
Reebok recently opened a South Boston store that allows visitors to design features for their shoes. But like many in the footwear industry, the company is looking for ways to custom-make shoes that fit each customer’s foot.
It’s the kind of question that many manufacturers are pondering amid steady advances in the ability to produce custom-made parts at a large scale. Though such products are cheaper and faster to create than ever before, they’re still more costly and time consuming than mass-produced goods.
The main challenge, according to many in the industry, is figuring out whether customers will shell out that extra money. Most consumers do not yet know how technology can improve the way their accessories fit, and the market to justify the expenditure for custom production just isn’t there yet.
“These things become obvious in hindsight, but there will be a killer app that brings this into the mainstream,” said John McEleney, cofounder of Onshape Inc., a Cambridge startup that makes software used in 3-D modeling. “In retrospect, we’re looking at a moment in time where it will be obvious that the building blocks were here.”
He cited developments in 3-D scanning, design, and printing as key elements in the shift.
Coined by futurists and adopted by the tech industry, the term “mass customization” has for years described products that are assembled to suit different specifications selected by buyers — from computers with specific capabilities, for example, or T-shirts with personalized prints.
However, products that are mass-bespoke, that is, made to fit a specific person in a factory that can churn out numbers of those at scale, have taken longer to become reality. If the technology takes off, though, it will be a boon for the developers of scanning, rendering, and printing products ready to supply manufacturers with the tools for custom productions.
Many also predict the broad adoption of mass-customization technology could help in-store retailers fend off pressure from Internet competitors by giving consumers a reason to shop in person instead of online. Scanning technology used in phones, for example, has not yet reached the point where it can provide the detailed measurements many makers need, according to specialists in the industry, so brick-and-mortar stores may be able to exploit an advantage with superior technology.
Customers “only go for experiences, and they will increasingly only go when there is a specific reason to go,” said Darshana Zaveri, chief executive of Lantos Technologies, a Woburn startup that makes a digital scanner that can map the inner ear to make products such as hearing aids.
“We think digital scanning fits really well into a retail environment that will attract customers,” she said.
Looking to test its technology with a consumer product, Lantos set up a temporary store last year at the Burlington Mall to sell custom earbuds based on his scanning technology, and had a headphone manufacturer make them. The company sold hundreds of high-end units at $269 a pair, and still has customers calling to order. Zaveri said she was pleased at the reception, but decided not to have the company move into the consumer products business, which requires the ability to build and distribute goods at a much different scale.
“What was difficult for us was as a startup company to focus on two totally different activities,” said Zaveri.
Instead the company will concentrate on selling its scanning technology to manufacturers and other businesses, and expects one day they will be used to make custom-fit earphones.
“We might be at the beginning of the curve rather than the thick of it,” she said.
Dávid Lakatos, chief product officer at Formlabs, the Somerville maker of 3-D printers, said there are highly customized, high-value items that have already broken through as viable products.
Invisalign dental correction casts, Lakatos said, could only be created at scale through mass customization. The challenge will be in getting custom-making products that provide only a smaller benefit over mass-produced to be widely-accepted. It would be nice to have custom-made shoes, for instance, but are the ones you can buy at the store really so bad?
“That’s the pitch that everybody needs to think about in customization,” Lakatos said. “How much premium will people pay?”
Furthermore, consumers have to be willing to wait for their products to be built, even as companies continually cut down turnaround time.
Consumers “want customization if you ask them, and if there is a great implementation, then they will embrace it,” said B. Joseph Pine II, a cofounder of the consulting firm Strategic Horizons LLP. “But they have the mindset of, when they want something, they want something, and they go out and get it.”
Reebok is exploring augmenting its capacity with a collection of smaller factories. The company this year opened a plant in Lincoln, R.I., where it uses a liquid to “draw” the outsoles of shoes, a process that is much easier to change for a new design than the time consuming, centralized process of developing molds. McInnis said such facilities will also be useful for custom manufacturing by answering the question: “How do you make something affordable in small batches as opposed to hundreds of thousands and millions of pairs?”
For now, though, Reebok and many of its competitors believe custom-fit shoes will be mostly used by high-performance athletes. Often, McInnis said, that is the first step toward convincing the general public to adopt a new technology.
“That’s how a lot of trends start: ‘This is what the good people are wearing. This is what I should invest in as well,’” McInnis said. “You have to start at the sharp end.”Andy Rosen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @andyrosen.