You hear often people talking about product configurators as a solution to quite different and sometimes even conflicting needs. Whereas configurator gives a company a possibility to manage product variability in an efficient way, this should not be confused with product portfolio management.
Configurators are used to generate a unique product structure for a specific order or quote without the need to create and maintain all possible product variants.
In many cases a product may have hundreds of thousands possible variants but only fraction of possible variants is ever sold or quoted. Naturally companies do not want to spend money in creating and maintaining documentation for structures that are never going to be built.
Do you have a few products but a million product variants?
The different configurator requirements and solution can roughly be divided to three categories:
Sales Configurator, also known as Configure Price Quote (CPQ)
- Focused in creating quotation documentation including pricing efficiently. Sales and pricing rules are often very different compared to rules used to create physical product structure.
- Focused in creating engineering or manufacturing BOM efficiently. Need to be able to create a complete BOM and use very sophisticated configuration rules.
- For complex, and many times one-off product deliveries, there are number of design deliverable’s that need to be created. Design automats are focused in automating the deliverable creation. Automation can lead many times to significant design time savings.
Different configuration approaches – ATO – CTO – ETO
When listening people talking about different configuration approaches, you might hear ATO, CTO or ETO acronyms. The definition of them is not always 100% clear and my explanation here might differ slightly from someone else’s explanation.
Assemble to Order (ATO)
This configurator type might be the easiest one to understand. Here a unique product configuration is created by combining existing product options (or modules). Normally options are kept in stock and configuration is created when an order requiring specific combination is received. Only top-level item is created as new variant collecting the options. There is very little engineering needed and no order specific documentation created apart from Bill of Material.
Most common way is to create so-called super-BOM (or 150% BOM) that collects all product options into one structure. The order specific structure is created using choice logic to select or filter the combination of options needed in specific order.
Configure to Order
Difference between configure to order and assemble to order processes is little vague. It can be said that Configure to Order process can create more order specific variants than just top-level item. Top-level product structure can have variant children that have been created by combining options under them. Still there is no need to create order specific manufacturing documents or product visualizations. All the options have been pre-validated to be compatible by engineering when creating the super-BOM.
Engineer to Order
Some say that Engineer to Order is not a configuration process at all. It is used for deliveries where significant number of new items, and sometimes even new options, need to be created to fulfil the order. And in a way this is true. But this domain has big engineering time saving potential, if the product architecture and design tools support configuration.
Design automats can automate creation of design deliverable and save hundreds of design hours per delivery project.
When to use a configurator?
Creating a configurator is an investment and takes most of the time more time and resources than anticipated. Because of this, a company should evaluate following things before starting a configurator:
- What is the number of potential product variants, if all them would be created?
- What is the configuration approach, ATO, CTO or ETO?
- For ETO, what is the number of design hours spent in creating documents for one variant?
- For ETO, what is the anticipated order volume for each product being analyzed?
- Is it a competitive advantage to be able to deliver products that meet customer requirements through configuration?
Implementing configurator or design automat to ETO process requires typically product to be redesigned to support configuration. It should be realised that typically it is not feasible to try to be able to create all possible variants with a configurator. 80-90% production volume target for a configurator is many times best that should be expected. Trying to reach higher level of automation will either lead into too strict product structure that does not allow needed flexibility or will cost too much to be economically justified.
Finally, I would like to mention few technical capabilities that should be evaluated when choosing a configurator solution:
- What is the requirement for component individuals? Can different component occurrence have different rules applied to itself when placed to a parent?
- What deliverables should be created as part of the configuration process? Typically, configurators can create 3D models easier than manufacturing drawings and like.
- For CTO and ETO products, the design automat should also be able to add components to a parent and not only remove unneeded options. In best case the whole model and drawing should be possible to create from scratch. For complex and large products, it is not feasible to create an assembly holding all possible options.