The place for configurators
Product configurators offer business owners and management the opportunity to radically reduce cost, staffing levels and improve efficiency. However, proposals to introduce such systems are not usually welcome by engineers and other staff who see these tools as a direct threat to their livelihood. This article discusses whether these fears are justified or whether the introduction of design automation systems can benefit employees and bring new prosperity to the company and the employees themselves.
A well-designed product configurator has the capability of reducing thousands of hours of repetitive work and completing this work in a few minutes, more accurately and in a format that conforms exactly to company procedures. Customers receive information within a few hours in a format that is clearly presented and meets their specification exactly. Of course, product configurators are not suitable for every business, but those business’s that provide products that can be configured, regardless of the millions of permutations possible, or the parametric input required can benefit considerably.
It is not uncommon that the first objection received from staff is that their products have too many variants to be configurable. This usually a good indication that these are precisely the types of products that are ideally suitable for configuration. Product configurators are not suitable for mass produced single design products, or one off bespoke items regardless of their complexity. They are however suitable for products where there are size permutations and optional features which are determined by customer requirement. There is no upper limit on the complexity of a configured product, as complexity usually increases the justification. It helps to know the selection rules as these can be embedded in the design of configurator to ensure the user always makes the right selection.
The inevitable fears
Once it becomes clear that a product configurator can be used to automate the design of a product, employees are very likely to become fearful and resistant to the introduction of a tool. Comments such as “what happens to my job when this configurator is up and working?”. These comments are reasonable given the number of hours that can be saved.
It is not uncommon that engineers are both sceptical and afraid of the idea of automating design processes. A typical response is “why change, if its not broken, why fix it?”. It requires strong management to reassure staff that they may in fact benefit from the changes. It is important to show that their skills are in fact augmented by the introduction of a tool which eliminates their need to do repetitive work.
A recent product configurator that we deployed utilised a single input screen where customer details, commercial conditions and the product selection parameters were entered. The input of information could be achieved with 20 to 30 minutes. As information was entered the affects of the entry were immediately apparent, the 3D model changed dynamically to reflect the input, the costs were updated so that the sales engineer could understand the commercial implications. Once the configuration was complete the sales engineer was able to produce the quotation at the click of a button. A further button brought up a financial summary for management approval. Drawings, specifications, shipping weights and sizes, commercial terms and conditions were all immediately available to be sent to the customer. Not bad for a capital equipment with a value of more than £100,000. Previously this work would have taken several days, the sales engineer would have needed to request engineering to prepare drawings, get suppliers prices for components, finance department would have been involved preparing commercial terms and bank guarantees.
Once the customer agreed to place an order for the equipment, the sales engineer was able to update the configuration as an order and transfer responsibility to the Projects team. The 3D model was verified against site details, and detailed drawings and parts lists are generated at the touch of a button. Process drawings and specification sheets were generated automatically and reviewed by the engineers. Few changes were required because the same engineers had previously prepared the templates used by the configurator. Electrical schematics, and pneumatic diagrams also generated automatically. Within an hour of receiving the customers order, the engineering team were reviewing the final documents.
Once the project manager was happy with the specifications, the parts lists and drawings were automatically sent to production. To complete the process, the project manager presses several other buttons to produce the installation, commissioning, operation and maintenance manuals, the quality plan and relevant certification and risk assessments.
Engineers are still vital to this process
So, what are benefits of using a product configurator? The customer received a high-quality proposal within a few hours. The company saved a lot of money on staffing costs, the quotation was based upon accurate information with reduced commercial risk. There were no bottlenecks, and the company was able to focus its resources on growth initiatives rather than repeating engineering tasks. And yet, it is the engineers that keep this all running smoothly.
Engineers roles could be re-focussed from processing enquiries and orders, to maintaining the quality information used by the product configurators. Of course, there were times when a customer required a solution which was not commercially sensible to add to the configurator functionality. On these occasions this would require engineering effort, but the output could be integrated back into the final output of the configurated solution.
Product configurators are not tools which are static, left without attention they will become useless. They must contain the very best information the company has and be kept updated. They must be at the core of business processes and culture, and they need to be used and supported by everyone.
Product configurators and design automation systems do impact individuals roles in the company. Those that resist change are likely to become redundant, but this is a fact of all business. Engineers must learn new skills, they will need to become product managers not just design engineers. They must think about the product as a family of products and how best to apply a design solution with that in mind. Knowledge of product structure and modularity is required. How do parts integrate with each other in the most efficient way? Engineers must learn to use programming languages and the ability to communicate with the computer-aided design software. It is my belief that within the next ten years every engineer will be compelled to use programming languages as part of their daily toolkit as readily as we currently reach for a pocket calculator.
It’s an investment
Time will need to be invested up-front creating a configurator, they aren’t made overnight. But the investment in time will produce a system that allows enquiries and orders to be processed quickly and accurately when required, responding to customers within hours rather than days. This freeing up of design time will encourage companies and individuals to become more pro-active in product development and greater customer focus.
Yes, engineers and other employees should be concerned about the impact of design automation, but perhaps in a positive light. Design automation can bring new prosperity for companies providing increased job security, growth through the introduction of new products and more business for existing products. For engineers, there will be new challenges, new skills to learn leading to new job opportunities. Companies can become more customer focussed, and pro-active. There will be more resources available to re-invest, and for once, there will be an opportunity to level the playing field with overseas competitors and their low labour rates.
Written by Peter Slee Smith, Editted by Jason Spencer – 21/03/2018