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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 include:

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 specifications;

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.

Recent Developments

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 rules.

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

For balance of this article, click on the below link:

Lean Manufacturing Articles and go to Series 01


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