8.4 Types of Operation Processes

The first step in production planning is deciding which type of production process is best for making the goods that your company intends to manufacture. In reaching this decision, you should answer such questions as:

  • Am I making a one-of-a-kind good based solely on customer specifications, or am I producing high-volume standardized goods to be sold later?
  • Do I offer customers the option of “customizing” an otherwise standardized good to meet their specific needs?

One way to appreciate the nature of this decision is by comparing three basic types of processes or methods: make-to-order, mass production, and mass customization. The task of the operations manager is to work with other managers, particularly marketers, to select the process that best serves the needs of the company’s customers.

Forms of Productions Processes


At one time, most consumer goods, such as furniture and clothing, were made by individuals practising various crafts. By their very nature, products were customized to meet the needs of the buyers who ordered them. This process, which is called a make-to-order strategy, is still commonly used by such businesses as print or sign shops that produce low-volume, high-variety goods according to customer specifications. This level of customization often results in a longer production and delivery cycle than other approaches.

Mass Production

By the early twentieth century, a new concept of producing goods had been introduced: mass production (or make-to-stock strategy), the practice of producing high volumes of identical goods at a cost low enough to price them for large numbers of customers. Goods are made in anticipation of future demand (based on forecasts) and kept in inventory for later sale. This approach is particularly appropriate for standardized goods ranging from processed foods to electronic appliances. It generally results in shorter cycle times than a make-to-order process. This type of production also takes advantage of economies of scale, which refers to the reduced costs per unit that are realized from an increased total number of units produced.

Mass Customization

There is at least one big disadvantage to mass production: customers, as one old advertising slogan put it, can’t “have it their way.” They have to accept standardized products as they come off assembly lines. Increasingly, however, customers are looking for products that are designed to accommodate individual tastes or needs but can still be bought at reasonable prices. To meet the demands of these consumers, many companies have turned to an approach called mass customization, which combines the advantages of customized products with those of mass production.

This approach requires that a company interact with the customer to find out exactly what the customer wants and then manufacture the good, using efficient production methods to hold down costs. One efficient method is to mass-produce a product up to a certain cut-off point and then customize it to satisfy different customers.

Canister of yellow, blue, and white M&Ms with a graduation theme
Image Credit: M&M Mars Inc.

One of the best-known mass customizers is Nike, which has achieved success by allowing customers to configure their own athletic shoes, apparel, and equipment through the NikeiD program. The Web has a lot to do with the growth of mass customization. Levi’s, for instance, lets customers find a pair of perfect-fitting jeans by going through an online fitting process. Oakley offers customized sunglasses, goggles, watches, and backpacks, while Mars, Inc. can make M&M’s in any colour the customer wants (say, school colours) as well as add text and even pictures to the candy.

Naturally, mass customization doesn’t work for all types of goods. Most people don’t care about customized detergents or paper products. And while many of us like the idea of customized clothes, footwear, or sunglasses, we often aren’t willing to pay the higher prices they command.

Just-in-Time Production

One method is called just-in-time (JIT) production: the manufacturer arranges for materials to arrive at production facilities just in time to enter the manufacturing process. Parts and materials don’t sit unused for long periods, and the costs of “holding” inventory are significantly cut. JIT, however, requires considerable communication and cooperation between the manufacturer and the supplier. The manufacturer has to know what it needs and when. The supplier has to commit to supplying the right materials, of the right quality, at exactly the right time.

Education, although not a business, still adopts business innovations to boost efficiency. Many institutions are moving to JIT printing or printing on demand. Rather than estimating the need and then ordering textbooks, only to return the vast majority, more and more educational bookstores are printing your textbook when you order it. New technologies allow bookstores to produce a high-quality, bound textbook on site. The open library from eCampusOntario is harnessing this efficiency. You can order a low-cost, high-quality print version of our textbooks thanks to our partnership with the University of Waterloo and its commitment to student savings.

Forms of Transformation Technology

Previously, in Chapter 3 we discussed the example of the PowerSki JetBoard founded by Bob Montgomery.  Montgomery faced several challenges in terms of the design and manufacturing of the board.  However, due to recent technological transformations, many companies have turned to popular forms of technological change. Some examples have been listed below and related back to PowerSki JetBoard.

Computer-Aided Design

Montgomery turned to computer technology for help and began using a computer-aided design (CAD) software package to design not only the engine but also the board itself and many of its components. The CAD program enabled Montgomery and his team of engineers to test the product digitally and work out design problems before moving to the prototype stage.

The sophisticated CAD software allowed Montgomery and his team to put their design paper in a drawer and to start building both the board and the engine on a computer screen. By rotating the image on the screen, they could even view the design from every angle. Having used their CAD program to make more than four hundred design changes, they were ready to test the Jetboard in the water. During the tests, onboard sensors transmitted data to computers, allowing the team to make adjustments from the shore while the prototype was still in the water. Nowadays, PowerSki uses collaboration software to transmit design changes to the suppliers of the 340 components that make up the Jetboard. In fact, a majority of design work these days is done with the aid of computers, which add speed and precision to the process.

Computer-Aided Manufacturing

For many companies, the next step is to link CAD to the manufacturing process. A computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software system determines the steps needed to produce the component and instructs the machines that do the work. Because CAD and CAM programs can “talk” with each other, companies can build components that satisfy exactly the requirements set by the computer-generated model. CAD/CAM systems permit companies to design and manufacture goods faster, more efficiently, and at a lower cost, and they’re also effective in helping firms monitor and improve quality. CAD/CAM technology is used in many industries, including the auto industry, electronics, and clothing. If you have ever seen how a 3-D printer works, you have a pretty good idea of how CAM works too.

Computer-Integrated Manufacturing

By automating and integrating all aspects of a company’s operations, computer-integrated manufacturing (CIM) systems have taken the integration of computer-aided design and manufacturing to a higher level—and are in fact revolutionizing the production process. CIM systems expand the capabilities of CAD/CAM. In addition to design and production applications, they handle such functions as order entry, inventory control, warehousing, and shipping. In the manufacturing plant, the CIM system controls the functions of industrial robots—computer-controlled machines used to perform repetitive tasks that are hard or dangerous for human workers to perform.


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Introduction to Management by Kathleen Rodenburg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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