Just a few generations ago it was said of Henry Ford's revolutionary car for the masses that people could have a Model T in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. For a long time something similar could have been said about toilets, except as long as it was white.

Such was the role of the consumer for most of our century. S/he was regarded by the business world as a thankful recipient of modern technology and mass production. It was the customer's job to consume, but not ask too many questions or be too demanding.

As the decades passed, supply and demand combined with spirited competition to bring more and more choices into play. Black Model Ts and white toilets gave way to too many makes, models and colors to count. Still, there were limits. Production runs of any given model or color were finite. Certain models didn't come in certain colors, and even if you could get exactly what you wanted, you likely would have to place a custom order and wait weeks or months for delivery. Supply and demand notwithstanding, clever capitalists could still manipulate the marketplace. The customer was powerful, but not quite omnipotent. S/he couldn't quite get exactly what s/he wanted when s/he wanted it at a price s/he was willing to pay. Market inefficiencies and manipulations would see to that.

Modern Marvels

As we race to the close of this most momentous of centuries, market inefficiencies and manipulations are on the wane, and customers on the rise. This stark reality slapped me in the face the other day in the form of a Wall Street Journal article describing the Borders bookstores' experiment with printing on demand.

Using the Internet to access digital files obtained from cooperating publishers, Borders will soon be able to print and bind a book, complete with cover, within 15 minutes. The bookstore chain will continue to carry an inventory of popular titles, but print-on-demand will be the way they sell out-of-stock books or those they don't carry. It will resolve a constant book sellers' dilemma of devoting shelf space to slow moving titles, as well as the publishers' fundamental problem of guesstimating production runs. The number of titles Borders can print on demand will be determined by licensing agreements with publishers, but it's not hard to envision most publishers jumping on the print-on-demand bandwagon. For the publishing houses it's a risk-free business. They do not have to gamble the expense of printing books that may not sell. They simply create a digital file and collect a royalty fee every time it gets accessed.

Reminds me of a similar gee whiz feeling that arose back in the late 1960s when I saw demonstrations of the first generation of computerized machine tools. These eliminated countless manufacturing steps and made short production runs economically viable for a number of products.

Come to think of it, isn't this also related to what you folks do all the time with computer-aided design programs? In the ancient world of a few decades ago, every drawing was a laboriously crafted one-of-a-kind document. Now, CAD enables you to mass produce one-of-a-kind designs.

Customer Sovereignty

All of this is to say that today's world of commerce is ruled increasingly by the customer. Few client needs or demands can be thought of as unreasonable anymore. They incessantly demand more variety, better quality and a wider range of choice, yet at a lower price. Almost anything anyone asks for, someone can provide.

This is exactly what all of you have been witnessing in the construction industry throughout this decade. Overall, the '90s have brought the longest run of prosperity most of us have enjoyed in our lifetimes. Manpower has been in short supply throughout, shortages of certain materials have cropped up, demand for engineering services never has been greater in the aggregate. In bygone times, all of this would have led to slackness in the competitive bid markets and a ratcheting up of engineering fees.

Instead, companies at every level of construction have had to operate on slim margins, even when there's more business out there than they can handle. The customer/client reigns supreme.

That's because the rapid pace of digital technology has enabled elaborate client services to be delivered faster and less expensively than ever in virtually any field of endeavor. People who don't keep up don't last long. For instance, just a few years ago Borders bookstores were the rave of the literary world with their large inventories, rapid order capability and user friendly shopping atmosphere. Then amazon.com suddenly appeared on the scene and Borders seemed antiquated virtually overnight. Print-on-demand is one way to fight back.

Lessons are there for all of us, friends. It behooves us to ask ourselves, every day: "Who is doing a better job than I am servicing my clients? What can I do to keep up and surpass their services?"