Next-generation IT has big shoes to fill

The future of IT rests on craft production, not mass production, as this tale of custom-made size 25 shoes illustrates

What do 3D printers, the difference between process and practice, and the increased demand for luxury goods have to do with a 7-foot, 8-inch-tall basketball fan with size 25 feet?

The answer: Together they provide a case study for the future of both manufacturing and information technology. For next-generation IT leaders positioned to anticipate this custom-tailored future, rich rewards on the executive team await.

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The cost of mass producing one item

The basketball fan is Igor Vovkovinskiy. Because his feet are far bigger than any off-the-shelf shoes, his life has been an endless cycle of walking around in the only shoes he can get, which damage his feet, requiring surgeries to fix them, followed by more walking around in ill-fitting shoes. But the cost of manufacturing shoes that will fit Vovkovinskiy's feet is high -- in the vicinity of $16,000. (Reebok, to its credit, is building a pair for him pro bono.)

Without a doubt, for Reebok or any other shoe manufacturer to build a pair of custom-size shoes will be this expensive. That's because they're shoe manufacturers, optimized for creating large numbers of identical items. Manufacturing is a process -- it's a way to organize work characterized by:

  • High fixed costs (the factory)
  • Low incremental costs (economies of scale)
  • High quality (absence of defects)
  • Low excellence (tailoring and customization)

Along come Mr. Vovkovinskiy's size 25 feet. For Reebok, taking care of them is nothing but one-off work that requires (according to the Associated Press), "a complex shoe-fitting that involved, among other things, custom pressure-mounting equipment, imprints in bio-foam, a powerful three-dimension scanner to map the shape of his feet, calipers to take precise measurements of length, tape measures and a handful of technicians."

Craft production versus mass production

But imagine we were a society in which cobblers still thrived -- people who practiced the craft of custom shoemaking. Further imagine that a cobbler would consider $150,000 to be a decent year's gross income. If our imaginary shoemaker could produce a custom pair of shoes for Mr. Vovkovinskiy in a couple of weeks, everyone would end up ahead of the game. As the practice of making custom shoes wouldn't have to change all that much to accommodate feet that are still, other than being bigger, the appendages at the end of someone's legs upon which they walk, there's every reason to think a competent cobbler could have satisfied Mr. Vovkovinskiy and been happy to do so.

Unlike processes, practices are designed to have low overhead costs and high levels of excellence. Taking care of needs like those of a customer with size 25 feet is what they're for. The problem, of course, is that there probably aren't enough customers like Mr. Vovkovinskiy -- who would consider $6,000 to be a bargain price for a pair of good-fitting shoes -- to keep your average shoemaker in business.

Build to order: The middle ground between process and practice

Custom shoemakers do still exist. The delightfully named Shoes of Prey, for example, sells custom women's shoes for prices Mr. Vovkovinskiy would find extraordinarily reasonable, in the hundreds-of-dollars-per-pair range. They don't, however, offer shoes in his size, nor, I imagine, in styles he'd find to his taste.

Businesses like Shoes of Prey are springing up because of the growth of the luxury-goods market, as described in this space last June. As luxury is comparative, not absolute (if everyone around you wears a Rolex, a Rolex isn't a luxury watch anymore), selling custom-tailored merchandise is exactly what this growing market segment wants.

The shoes themselves aren't, however, truly custom. While handmade, they fit a process model known as build-to-order -- how Dell manufactures "custom" computers. Shoes of Prey lets customers choose from the cobbling equivalent of different-sized disk drives, RAM chips, and processor speeds, all of which are bolted onto a standard frame.

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