Product Configurator: A Game Changer for Complex Manufacturers
Complex manufacturers offer custom, or feature and option-rich products, which usually employ one or more of the following manufacturing methods to satisfy customer demand:
- Assemble-to-Order / Make-to-Order.
Today’s demand for highly specialized products means that even conventional manufacturers; those that manufacture quantities of identical items that are sold from stock (make-to-stock), may still have a complex manufacturing component in their product lines that make use of one or more of the complex manufacturing methods above.
Traditionally, complex manufacturers would rely on highly experienced customer service personnel with comprehensive product knowledge to accurately interpret, define and record client requirements to create the detailed product specification. This was neither efficient, nor in many cases completely accurate due to errors and missing or misinterpreted information resulting in a non-compliant product. By managing the order entry process through ERP software, discipline and control can be introduced to improve accuracy and consistency in the delivery of complex goods.
Introducing the Product Configurator
The Product Configurator is ERP software’s answer to a product ‘template’. By building a comprehensive feature list with option ranges and boundaries, even the most complex product can be custom specified for production. For example, a door manufacturer may offer the following options for a basic door product:
Door Type: Wood or Steel-Clad
Colour: Black, Brown, Red, or Green. For Wood Only – optional stains – red cedar or chocolate.
Lites (window openings): None, Configuration A, Configuration B, Configuration C
Hinge: Left or Right
Height: 80”, 84” or 96”
Width: 24”, 30” or 36”
With the ERP software prompting order entry staff for each specific feature (e.g. height) and providing the available options (e.g. 80”, 84” or 96”) – including range boundaries where applicable – the possibility for error is greatly reduced. Our simple example illustrates how complex a basic door sale can be for order entry personnel, imagining more sophisticated product builds such as electronic devices and the product configurator becomes absolutely essential.
Fool-proof? Well, almost…
As great a tool as the Product Configurator can be, it is highly dependent upon its setup. Product features and all available options must be precisely defined for this utility to be effective. Product teams must enter product structure with parametric and rules-based details for order entry personnel to provide accurate specifications. Errors in setup could translate to costly waste issues for misbuilds, loss of revenue through missed upsell opportunities and decreased customer satisfaction. In addition, as this is your ‘template’ these issues can recur on multiple orders if the problem is not immediately identified.
Having worked with a number of companies who are using a product configurator with great success, the most important consideration for anyone planning to implement a configurator solution is the development and retention of internal support for the tool. The responsibility for setup and maintenance should be handled by Product Management and/or Engineering staff to ensure a high level of accuracy and functionality in the system.
Benefits of the Product Configurator
ERP software developers have placed significant attention in evolving the Product Configurator over the last few decades and rightfully so. High-end computers with improved processing speed and increased data storage have become more affordable and easier to support, enabling the Product Configurator to become increasingly sophisticated. Today’s configurator not only supports selection of options, but also through GUI interface can graphically build the product in seconds with product and component rendering and modelling providing a detailed view including materials list even before manufacturing takes place.
In addition, the product configurator offers multiple savings and efficiencies:
- Vastly reduced and often complete elimination of order entry errors
- Improved efficiency and accuracy in sales quotations
- Faster order entry process time – and correlated faster time to market
- Reduced training times for order entry staff
- No need to create a BOM for every conceivable combination of features and options – Configurator builds BOMs and routes.
- Creation of drawings and/or photographic-quality renderings
- Failsafe critical combinations – i.e. suspension option to payload weight option in a tanker truck order
- Maintain “as-built” BOM structure linked to product orders for future service and replacement part sales opportunities.
- Increased sales opportunities – for example, providing clients with self-service options for configuration of their product for purchase through a web portal.
The Future of Product Configurator Software
As manufacturing analysts predict a trend towards ‘mass customization’ the product configurator will continue to gain steam as more and more manufacturers adopt some level of customization in their product offerings. Fed by technology – including the sophistication and cheaper and easier deployment of Product Configurator utilities – manufacturers look to satisfy the ‘tailored’ demands expressed by customers to increase sales and to enter into new markets. Client-side product configuration has already become more common place – and can even be found embedded within digital technologies like Facebook. As for existing complex manufacturers reliant on Product Configurators, they continue to reap the benefits as product configuration tools continue to advance and evolve.
For over 30 years, Kevin has provided services to the manufacturing industry. Specializing in Manufacturing Engineering, Materials Management, and Shop Floor Control, Kevin has added value to hundreds of ERP software implementations.