How does product configuration fit in to business processes?
Product configurators provide the ability to select from millions of permutations with total accuracy, following the pre-determined rules that the company wishes to apply. They not only provide the configuration of the 3D model, they are now capable of providing commercial information such as quotations, drawings, specifications, electrical circuits, and instruction manuals to name a few. They do these tasks with ruthless efficiency, providing virtually instantaneous results. All combined they can create a ‘business in a box’, a strong backbone that can steer the business process and ensure reliability and accuracy. This article explores how much product configurator and design automation systems can now achieve.
If this is the first article you have read on this topic by us, we advise you first read our article on Product Configuration Competitiveness.
Consider how much time could be saved if all the engineering for a new quotation, or customer order could be completed by the touch of a button. This is exactly the role for a product configurator. A product configurator may save hundreds of hours of engineering work on a single project but looked at over the first year this may amount to thousands of hours. Once established, a product configurator will continue to save time and deliver excellent results every time.
It is true that a product configurator requires considerable up-front investment. It requires that the product is well structured and that all the business rules are well defined. It requires that the team learn new skills, and ownership is paramount. In addition to a significant reduction of time and cost, the product configurator provides several less tangible benefits. It is a central repository for product and application data which is accessible to the whole company. Planning for the product increases leading to better life cycle management. Engineering resources are freed up for new product development, leading to growth opportunities. Customer satisfaction increases as information is delivered in a consistent and timely manner. Management receive good quality financial data to make better informed decisions.
Apart from dynamically providing a 3D model, the data collected at the point of entry can be used to drive numerous business processes. This article explores some of the documents and processes that can be driven directly from the configurator:
The user experience for most product configurators starts with the entry of data onto carefully prepared input forms. The user is guided by the forms through the process of data entry. The form may adapt to user inputs, conforming to predefined rules. The logic used behind the user entry form reflects the best practice using product and company knowledge. To hand back some control to engineers there may be the ability to override these rules and take back personal responsibility for certain selections or parameters, but this is the exception.
During the data entry process, the product configurator may provide instantaneous feedback to the user by showing real time changes to a 3D model. As product options are selected these appear on the screen, as parametric dimensions are adjusted and the model changes to reflect this. Data such as cost, weight, volume or lead time may be presented on the screen to help make informed decisions.
Alternatively, product configurators may also be driven by the output of other applications. Sizing systems that carry out complex system sizing calculations may be linked to set the starting parameters for configurated output. Simplified web interfaces allowing customers to directly configure products may be used to initiate the configuration process.
Commercial details such as payment terms, warranties, accepted liabilities, foreign exchange rates, exclusions, bank guarantees can be managed in accordance with company policies. Financial summaries used to gain management approval can be automatically generated and circulated for immediate response.
Quotations can be completed and formatted with the company brand, containing all necessary, technical and commercial details. These may be supported by sales drawings, flow sheets, general arrangements and equipment schedules. 3D models can be sent in a protected format that allows close inspection but at all times protecting the intellectual property contained.
Product information will usually comprise of parts lists, assembly drawings, and full set of detailed manufacturing drawings. Copies of the drawings prepared in pre-sorted compressed state ready for sending to production or suppliers. Component data sheets and a list of supplier options with current prices and lead times.
Design risk assessments pre-populated with configurable data and highlighted areas that need individual attention. Product technical manuals required to meet requirements of European directives or other legislative authorities.
Packing weights and dimensions so that transport can be prepared in advance of manufacturing completion. Shipping documents, and insurance forms. Lifting, storage and handling drawings and information.
A great deal of process documentation can be compiled by the configurator which may include process flow drawings (PFD), process and instrumentation (P&ID) diagrams, input/output lists (I/O), valve lists, instrument lists, equipment lists. Process descriptions can be pre-populated with areas highlighted of individual attention.
It may even be possible to assemble modular software programmes which can assemble functional programable logic controller (PLC) software for controlling the functionality of the equipment.
Electrical, Hydraulic and pneumatic circuits
Control schematics, circuit diagrams, parts lists and data sheets can be assembled automatically from a well-designed product configurator.
High quality instruction manuals can be assembled automatically, providing details of installation, commissioning, operation and maintenance manuals. These manuals can be linked to relevant drawings and parts lists for a rich interactive experience.
A bill of materials can be exported to an Engineering Resource Planning system (ERP) or other production system by preparing the information in the format easily received by those systems. For sheet metal products, scale drawings may be exported so that these can be used for creating accurate profiles without reinterpreting the data.
What does this mean?
In summary, the scalability of a product configurator can be huge, it can be used as a simple design tool or it can reach across all business processes, providing fast and accurate information. Product configurators require considerable up-front investment of planning and detail, but the rewards can be significant.
Many successful companies are aware of competitive pressure from overseas, where engineering labour is considerably cheaper. Introducing a product configurator and eliminating the need for iterative engineering can give companies back that competitive advantage by reducing the need for extensive engineering input.
Hopefully this document has shown that product configurators can do much more than simply configure products and can contribute greatly to automation of complete business processes, reducing risk, increasing customer satisfaction and shorter lead times.
Written by Peter Slee Smith, Editted by Jason Spencer – 20/03/2018