Manufacturers are struggling to deliver products that meet customer demands for variability. I recently read an article about Volkswagens challenge to synchronize PLM across truck brands . One of the topics it discusses is the different approaches to manage all product variations across truck lines to meet the expectations of their customers. Earlier discussions on product variant management and BOM configuration both introduce some concepts for managing product variations. I’d like to look at product configuration from perspective of the people you are trying to win over – the customer.
Business starts with the customer. Companies today are challenged to put a customer-centric business model first. While there are many aspects to this business model, today I would like focus on one: how to empower customers/end users by providing a self-service functionality to express their choices. Guided product configurations are used to configure products by optimizing the required input by pre-populating choices and at the same time provide maximum flexibility to customers to get exactly what they want by overriding the system selections. For today, will focus on an automotive example, however, the techniques apply to all configurable products.
Customers especially need to be presented with a simple interface that allows them to configure products based on their desires and criteria. One approach is to provide a base product configuration that is economical and allows customers change/enhance the base configuration by selecting alternatives or upgrading. Limiting choices to sales features and hiding all technical variability provides a much simpler experience to the customers. Lucrative pricing can be offered by pre-packaging a set of features.
Several factors need to be analyzed in order to provide a simple but powerful end user interaction model. It is important to capture not only the configuration-defining inputs of different groups, but also support various guided product configuration needs of each. Systems are required to support ad-hoc, what-if, and free-form needs of engineering to do things like configuration overlays, change impact analysis, conduct clearance interference checking on a range of configurations, and the ability to do real-time visual display of the resulting product configuration for any user that has access to do so.
Complex products are made of several sub-systems and multiple domains play a role. Each domain has unique configuration requirement and complexity. A product configuration model at the inception or planning is generally broad with focus on high level business objectives. As the model matures it brings in additional constrains from engineering, manufacturing, sales and legal. Market research and dealer needs bring in another dimension. Order fulfillment has to cross-balance the two sides and has to be aware of warranty implications. On the other hand, Engineer to Order allows customers to go outside the configuration model and companies do a great deal of extra effort to produce customer specific products.
Marketing needs to consider pricing by region, profit goals and restrictions from engineering and manufacturing before they can publish the offers. Allowing features to be ordered as part of package and/or also allow individual feature upgrade can lead to challenges and it is very important that configurations do not yield overlapping functions and that package upgrades are handled gracefully. Homologation (regulatory and safety) rules, plant and technical restrictions must also be considered while setting up these configuration paths. It is very important that when customers start configuring their orders, they are always guided to a product configuration that is valid and can be physically produced.
In order to deal with this level of complexity, you need a product configuration tool that provides the ability to debug configuration/compatibility rules as they are defined, provides feedback and prevents users from going down a dead-end configuration path, and helps user optimize for the product features and criteria that are most important to them. By leveraging product configuration capabilities in Teamcenter, customers can overcome many of these challenges. With guided product configuration, you can validate domain configuration models and also analyze product variants by running simulation across multiple domains. Further, you can manage product configurations for tracking vehicles/customer orders and apply the same while performing systems engineering work, design content development, etc.
As our product configuration capabilities continue to evolve, we will keep you informed on the improvements we’re making to benefit you while managing feature, configuration models and applications in systems engineering, design, BOM, manufacturing and product planning.
About the Author
A product manager at Siemens PLM Software for Teamcenter, Sanjay Kulkarni has over 21 years of experience in Configuration Management, Six Sigma, Product development and management.