The industrial blueprint has changed as markets and industries have advanced. Lot sizes of one and mass customization are non-starters. Every vehicle can't be unique, nor can mass-market, high-volume vehicles be individualized. The best you can do is produce low-volume runs with special paint, wheel, and equipment packages and hope the result isn't a mutant best described as "personalized sameness."
The limiting factor is mass production where bigger is better, more costs less, and efficiency is measured by throughput. The sheer size of the operation makes it imperative to produce as many vehicles as possible from the same tooling sets, which places a premium on badge engineering. It does not satisfy customer needs.
The train often derails when determining what those needs are, and how to satisfy them. And the extremes to which automakers will go to categorize and collate the buying public is frightening—and self-delusional. If it was as scientific and precise as the practitioners would have you believe, there would be no need for rebates, or year-end sales. And statements like, "This customer wants to be different, yet not stand out from the crowd," would be found in sitcoms, not marketing reports.
It's the mass-production mindset and the drive to reach profitable volumes that skews the industry, and its view of the world. Its focus has to switch from "more" to "less." Automakers must move from talking about flexibility to practicing it. It will require global powertrains and unique applications and options, common electronic architectures and distinctive plug-and-play systems, and mix-and-match components that can be combined to create discrete structures.
An OEM will have 10 gauge units but—with different faces, pointers and surrounds—have 50 different clusters. And each resides in instrument panels that share structure within segments, but have a unique style and appearance. This automaker will produce high-quality, high-function, compact inline fours, V6s and V8s, but have the capability to add and subtract cylinders and place large engines in small packages. Efficiency, and therefore power density, will be high, so there will be no need for "guns-or-butter" thinking. The customer will win.
This flexibility will also extend to construction methods. Materials will be redeployed and rethought, and structures created that place a premium on elasticity. Corner modules and bulkhead hard points will determine the shape and size of the vehicle within a set of parameters. No longer will an automaker have to choose a sub-optimized middle ground equally ill at ease on the roads of Europe, Asia, or North America, or a drive configuration that's the same for every vehicle built off these components. It will be possible to place the engine in the front, or back, and drive the wheels the market demands be driven, without creating a unique structure each time. After this is engineered, the biggest problem will be in convincing Purchasing the systems and opportunity costs are lower precisely because the individual component costs—and flexibility—are higher.
This is the industry I see on the horizon. One of major change, and incredible opportunity. The old ways and the current myopic focus aren't suited to this future. Those who survive and prosper will practice sustainable flexibility and codify agility that supports the long-term health of the company by satisfying the changing desires of the customer.