This week, Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma, founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group, made waves talking about the threats and opportunities facing the manufacturing industry in China and around the world.

Speaking at Alibaba Group’s Cloud Computing Conference 2018 in Hangzhou, Ma said: “In the past, it would be impressive if an assembly line could produce 2,000 of the same garments in five minutes. Today onwards, making 2,000 different garments in five minutes will be more impressive.”

Ma is referring to a shift in consumer preferences. During the era of mass production, consumers wanted to own the same thing as their neighbors. Today, however, we’re living in the era of mass customization, where consumers increasingly demand highly personalized products that express their individuality and uniqueness.

In the era of mass production, workers had to produce a high volume of similar products. In such an environment, productivity was gained by the division of labor and specialization, as Adam Smith famously noted in The Wealth of Nations. However, in the era of mass customization, manufacturing workers are expected to produce a low volume of unique products. Specializing is no longer a viable strategy because every product is different.

This presents a real challenge for the manufacturing workforce, which is expected to produce an increasing number of products, with the same old tools – paper work instructions, manual data collection and so on. To meet this challenge, Ma predicts that in the future data analysts and algorithm engineers will not be working at internet companies but in manufacturing facilities.

But thanks to Tulip, manufacturers don’t need to wait for that future to arrive. Our customers are already using our platform to build apps that augment their workers’ skills so they can produce highly customized products, without sacrificing productivity or quality. The best part? They don’t need to be technical or know how to code.

For example, one of our customers is a sports apparel manufacturer who lets their buyers customize the shoes they produce. To enable this, they use Tulip to build an app that guides the assembly of their shoes, so they are built to specification, fast and without defects. Another customer, a medical device manufacturer, used Tulip to create an app that guides their workers as they produce and ship teeth implants. Since implementing Tulip, not only have they been able to increase the number of combinations they offer to over a billion, but they’ve also eliminated all shipping errors.

Ma predicts that the Internet of Things, big data and cloud computing will impact manufacturing in ways the modern steam engine and oil before did for industries based on manual labor. At Tulip, we’re excited to be leading this transformation.