The Measure of a Man

Since the days when early humans began to stand upright, humans have studied the behavior of other humans. Anthropology, the study of human social and physical development, is the modern, scientific expression of this study. Anthropology is generally linked to universities, but as supply chain capabilities improve, there is a practical interest in a branch of anthropology known as anthropometrics: the study of human body measurement. Companies that combine computing with anthropometric research are improving their ability to create custom products. Anthropometrics will give Web storefronts a method for effectively selling a wider variety of custom and off-the-shelf wares.

In 1998, Anthropology Research Project Inc. (ARP) completed a body-size survey of about 10,000 U.S. Army personnel. Researchers measured 132 distinct points on both male and female soldiers. The research was slated, among other uses, to improve the fit of combat clothing. ARP has conducted similar studies for major luxury car manufacturers to improve ergonomics. More recently, it added 3-D scanning to its arsenal of data collection techniques, which has allowed the company to create databases of information about the head and facial features necessary for designing comfortable bicycle helmets.

Not surprisingly, companies that use anthropometric research find that their assumptions about design and comfort are not always widely applicable. Many women can tell you how difficult it is to find a pair of jeans that fit properly. Shorter-than-average and taller-than-average drivers will often complain how poorly their car seats fit. In many ways, we have gotten used to the poor fit that goes along with mass-produced products.

The Web provides the perfect entry point for an updated manufacturing paradigm, known as mass customization, where mass produced products are built to custom specifications. Mass customization involves a revolution along the entire supply chain, although most of the supply chain has been automated, or at least automatable, for some time. The weak link has been on the ordering side. Presenting lots of choices to a wide array of buyers has always been difficult, but the Web handles this task easily. Dell Computer Corp.'s online ordering system and supporting supply chain is a great example of mass customization using the Web.

Yet much of custom ordering on the Web is still in the Stone Age. Products defined by a limited number of choices -- software, hardware, books, and compact discs -- can be easily customized and ordered via the Web, but many other products are having a hard time of it. I do my best to order every class of item online at least once. Over the past few years, I’ve discovered that goods designed to fit a person are tough to order. For example, the mountain biking shoes I ordered, even after measuring my feet, were too small -- I kept them, and I still suffer to this day. The motorcycle helmet I ordered online after carefully measuring my noggin caused a bright red indentation in my forehead after 10 minutes. My wife tried to order biking shoes and wasted two shipping-and-handling charges getting the size right.

The bottom line: With only a few control points it is often difficult to place an order in a virtual world. We need to make the jump from our current stone tools. One potential solution for making customized orders on the Web is to provide a vendor with a three-dimensional anthropometric scan. Bizarre and unlikely? I’m not so sure. Service bureaus offering three-dimensional scanning are popping up. Web vendors are struggling to differentiate themselves from other on-line vendors as well as traditional brick-and-mortar stores. Providing the best fitting off-the-shelf products is a plus. Offering custom products is an even bigger advantage.

An excellent example of a custom product offered on the Web is the jewelry creator Tradeshop.com. My wife and I are using Tradeshop.com to create her custom engagement ring and wedding ring. Although the service and results have been outstanding, the process had to begin with a trip to the local jewelry store for a critical ring measurement. Nothing like sending a customer straight to the competition. While this didn’t seem like a lot of trouble for something as important and expensive as an engagement ring, it’s unlikely that we would have gone through that trouble to order clothing or a chair. Furthermore, if Tradeshop.com had supported an anthropometric upload, we could have seen her ring-in-process displayed on a likeness of her finger instead of using our imagination and Federal Express.

For customization to take off, software will need to better handle continuous data and production lines will have to allow more variations. In the near future, choosing a size from a list box will seem as ineffective as shaving with a stone razor. Fortunately, most databases can handle continuous data. XML provides the standard mechanism for packaging complex data, such as a three-dimensional scan. Software, infrastructure and manufacturing are on the brink of providing customized products at competitive prices -- just wait until we start rubbing two sticks together. --Eric Binary Anderson is a development manager at PeopleSoft's PeopleTools division (Pleasanton, Calif.) and has his own consulting business, Binary Solutions. Contact him at ebinary@yahoo.com.