Over the years, Sabre has been involved in a number of manufacturing product configurator selections for different customers. We did this in the role is as a product selection specialist - selected for our extensive experience with Manufacturing ERP and the principles of manufacturing such as bills of material, routings, etc...
This is a short primer for those looking at getting a product configurator.
What is a Product Configurator
A product configurator is a software product designed to "design" something by selecting from a set of options (often called attributes) in combinations that you as a business allow. For instance, if you go to almost any big automotive company website, they have relatively simple product configurators for selecting a car and choosing options. A very powerful configurator example is also on the website of DELL.
The most important aspect of these products is that you select options, and they restrict or block your ability to choose un-manufacturable products. I don't think un-manufacturable is technically a word, but in this context, it means something that you would not want to sell. It might be because the price or costs don't make it worth it - or it might be because it's so fabulously ugly you know people will return it - or it might be because it simply can't be made.
The best way to think of a configurator is to compare it to Excel. Think of the rules as being like the formulas and data in a spreadsheet. You create the rules based on what you need. If you don’t do it correctly (like with a spreadsheet) you can end up with something unwieldy and impossible to understand. If you design and carefully implement rules, they can be easy to manage and maintain.
So a configuration is made up of 2 parts.
- Rules (generally engineering or sales rules - "our Formulas")
- Engine (the configurator - "Excel")
How do you implement a Product Configurator?
- Choose the right person
Avoid the pitfall of choosing a junior staff member to implement this. You would never get a junior staff member to design your product catalog - and this is an electronic product catalog. You must choose a senior person
- Plan The Rules
There are 3 types of rules this person (or several people) will write. Focus on the Sales Rules only until they are rock solid. Otherwise, you can get into a vicious loop trying to get Materials Rules working.
- Sales Rules - which are the "catalog" part of the rules. These must be FINISHED before proceeding to the next step. We recommend they are deployed because someone saying "I'm Finished" doesn't mean they actually have tested and confirmed they are working.
- Materials Rules - which technically defines the "bill of materials" of a part. This is a tricky activity especially if nobody has ever actually sat down and "codified" how you define your BOM. Most companies simply copy a similar configuration and make a change. Computers need to build up the BOM from nothing. They're not smart enough to change an existing one.
- CAD Rules - it's not always necessary to do the materials rules first - but it can be hard to define CAD drawings for products if you don't know at least the main materials required.
- Allocate the ResourcesDon't be overly optimistic about how long the project will take. The collecting of the data you need to write your rules is almost like a forensic investigation. The rules will not be all in one place. I have found that I've needed to interview every person involved in a product catalog 3 or 4 times to find all the exceptions and emails and scribbled notes that contained the data that would go into the rules.
Why Not Write my Own Product Configurator
Finally, we get to the "why can't I just write my own and save money".
Writing your own configurator is like writing your own version of Excel. I have seen it done a number of times, and 100% of the time the configurator is abandoned when the employee who wrote it left. One customer told me the total effort to write their own configurator (over 10 years) was over $1M and we replaced it with an “off the shelf” product in 5 months at a cost of about $100K. Labor to create the rules was extra - but it was 1/4 as labor-intensive as the "homemade" version had been. The previous product had REQUIRED their $75K per year programmer to remain on staff to change even simple things like a price. The new one had no such issues.
Also, your need for a configurator depends on your mode of manufacturing. Read
Need Some Help?
If you want to discuss product configurator best practices,