In many companies, the cycle of quotation and order entry is a
cumbersome activity relying on the memory of people to specify a
valid product configuration. Typically, the results are excessive
errors and time in th§ process. Often, the cycle is reactive, rather
than the sales force being proactive in working with the customers
on their premises; the case is too frequently one of "let me verify
this with the home office..."
Traditional techniques to manage options and variations have not
fully addressed the complexities of the option/ variation
environment; the answer in the past has been to modularize the
bills. The objectives for implementing a Configurator system
1. Overcome the weaknesses of modular bills—specifically, the
interdependency of options (e.g., if a feature is selected, then
what are the related inclusions/ exclusions) and dimensional product
2. Avoid creating unique bills and excessive part numbers;
3. Reduce order fulfillment cycle time;
4. Eliminate reliance on people's memory and their black books
(sometimes known as tribal knowledge);
5. Improve the accuracy of order management and related product
documentation; and above all
6. Substantially improve the company's competitive posture in
the market place.
Thus, the objectives for implementing a Configurator are totally
consistent with the strategy of Mass Customization.
The growth of rules-based Configurator systems has been fueled by
the recognition of the weaknesses in the purely "Features/Options"
(F/O) approach offered in the order entry modules of some earlier
MRP II software pack-ages.(3) The F/O approach relies on structuring
psuedo bills and providing a script for order entry personnel to
select the appropriate F/O groups to create a unique order Bill of
Material for the life of the order, but without the intelligence of
The F/O approach may seem on the surface to adequately handle the
multitudes of options and variations of the "To-Order" environment.
The experience—sometimes bitter— of some companies indicate that
"rules" are necessary; the F/O approach is just too simplistic for
complex option/ variation environments. As the product offerings of
companies become more complex, the need to move away from the
simplistic F/O approach becomes more pressing.
The hierarchical, psuedo-bill structuring of the F/O approach is
used in many of the Configurator software packages today. The major
difference from the basic F/O approach, however, is the ability of
rules to handle inter-dependencies and dimensional specifications,
as well as to integrate with related applications such as unique
routings, pricing and costing.
As mentioned above, the use of Configurators requires a rule set
to allow specification of the customer-specified unique
configuration. This rule set can be used over the entire order
fulfillment cycle, starting with the quotation process through order
entry, manufacturing and shipment. The rules capabilities of many
software packages are continually evolving from simple IF-THEN-ELSE
logic to more extensive capabilities, including the ability to
handle dimensions and mathematical formulas.
Visionary companies do not think of Configurators just in the
narrow context of replacing the clerical aspects of order entry.
From the earlier example, with the development of a rules set that
includes pricing logic, the sales force can be armed with notebook
computers that allow the complete quotation process to be performed
in the customer's office, not at the home office. Developments in
interfacing Configurators with CAD (Computer-aided Design) and
graphic packages, such as AutoCad, allow rapid printing of
customized drawings for customer approval as part of the quotation -
order booking cycle.(4,5)
The use of rule sets to manage the many combinations of options
and variations does not necessarily imply that a company should
allow unlimited choices. A customer could be literally overwhelmed
with choices; see, for instance, the comments on Toyota.(6) In
essence, the company found the typical customer was confused by the
wealth of choices. In contrast, the newer role of sales personnel
should be to simplify the selection process. The determination of
valid choices to be offered is a key tenent of Mass Customization.
There is now a full range of Configurator software choices to
support the needs of companies. However, there is not yet a
standardized APICS definition nor an accepted industry-wide
selection criteria for Configurator software. The buyer needs to
carefully evaluate the vendor's software when they claim
"Configurator" capabilities. Selection criteria and the "right
choice" will still vary depending on the particular situation of the
company—there is no one "best package."
This last point also relates to "lessons learned."
Demonstrations of software can be misleading if not properly
interpreted by the buyer. For instance, it may be difficult to
estimate the total number of rules and tables to be created and then
maintained by users once the system is installed. As some users have
found, table maintenance can be more intensive than first imagined.
To Be Continued
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Lean Manufacturing Articles and go to Series 01