It's finally here. Mass customization, or the practice of offering consumers the ability to customize products to their liking before purchasing them, is poised to turn manufacturing on its head and revolutionize business. Hallelujah!

But haven't we heard this before? Indeed, mass customization's revolutionary impact was touted as the next big thing in 2000. And in 1993. And also in 1970. That's right, as early as forty years ago, business thinkers were predicting the dawn of mass customization and extolling its paradigm-shifting impact on industry.

But according to a new report by Forrester, in 2011 we truly are on the verge of seeing mass customization arise and provide a viable alternative to the process of homogenized mass production that has been so prevalent since the days of Henry Ford. And we largely have the Web and related technologies to thank.

Previously, mass customization faced several obstacles to really becoming a viable option for businesses. Incomplete implementations, cost overruns and primitive digital interfaces all made it difficult for mass customization to work.

So what changed? The cost of the technology is dropping, for one thing. According to the report, development that used to cost companies $1 million and nine months now goes for $50,000 and can take as little as two months to build.

At the same time, the technology itself has become more advanced, allowing businesses to build sophisticated, yet easy-to-use interfaces (or "configurators") from which consumers can co-create products.

Some examples of mass customization include custom-made clothing from Spreadshirt and Blank Label, custom chocolates from chocri and even cereal from German cocreation startup mymuesli.

Although only 6% of customers report having used a configurator interface to customize products, Forrester expects that number to grow pretty quickly thanks to three key trends:

  • Digital experiences are beginning to influence customer expectations. Even if they are not yet customizing products, consumers are able to customize other aspects of their experience when shopping online these days. Once they get a taste of mass customized products, Forrester wagers, they'll be hooked.
  • The technology used to interface with customers is getting cheaper, and costs will continue to drop.
  • The future of customer-facing interfaces, which includes touch screens, gestural interfaces like Kinect and even brainwave-powered computing, will open up further opportunities for product co-creation.

Mass customization has other advantages. For consumers, it offers them the opportunity to own something that they had a hand in creating, which is more gratifying than owning a mass-produced product. Sure, you could select from forty different colors of hats, but today you can choose from 556 quadrillion types of cereal on mymuesli.

The trend will likely be driven in part by big brands who are already experimenting with mass customization. Lenscrafters and Nike have offered customizable eyewear and footwear (respectively) for years. More recently, Hallmark has offered recordable storybooks and Kraft has rolled out personalized flavored water.

Small and medium-sized businesses are jumping on board as well. "Seeds planted over the past 10 years have germinated into a vibrant community of SMBs employing business models completely predicated on mass customization," said the report. Some examples include personalized food, apparel, home décor and smart phone cases. As the costs of the technology continue to drop, we can probably expect to see even more SMBs getting in on the action.

Have you experimented with co-creation and mass customization? Would you consider it a fit for your business? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.