What Is a Configurator?
For our purposes, the definition of a
Configurator is rules-based— the use of the concepts of expert
systems to define and use product information in a practical
manner. Think of rules as easily recognizable algebraic notations,
such as If-then, Select, Greater than, etc., accompanied by
textual explanation messages. Rules-based methods are methods
designed to define unique product configurations in a more
user-friendly fashion than older methods.
Rules-based systems are often associated with
artificial intelligence (AI). But AI is usually defined in terms
of getting the computer to think like a human being, including
learning from experience, so such software must be quite
sophisticated. On the other hand, expert systems, or
knowledge-based systems, are normally defined at a lesser level of
sophistication, i.e., more pragmatic and understandable!
Most of the MRP II software vendors do not use
expert system packages per se, rather the concepts are programmed
in the language of the MRP II software of which they are a module.
For instance, Friedman & Associates uses RPG II, Logia uses
Advanced Revelation and Minx uses C. Recently, several packages
from the AI community have appeared. These vendors are:
Intellicorp, Trinzic, and Trilogy.
In general, the software vendors define their
capabilities in two categories: (1) creating the product
definition database, and (2) using scripts of selection criteria,
or questions, to accomplish the unique configuration task by
selecting the components and routings from some form of a master
file. The capabilities often include rules for pricing and
Usually, the master file for bills of materials
is a form of modular bills with rules associated with the
component parts to be used in the selection process at order entry
time. One vendor (Logia) relates rules to parts without any form
of modular bill file.
Software Issues and Considerations
Most of the early implementations of PDM
systems were in engineering design; only recently have they
encompassed functions such as manufacturing. The widening scope
of PDM systems has been fueled by the increasing realization that
time-based strategies are imperative if manufacturers are to
compete in the 1990s. More of you will become involved with
evaluating and implementing these Integration Enablers as the
implementation of PDM systems spreads beyond their engineering
The decision processes for evaluating PDM
systems will look quite familiar to those of you experienced with
the decision processes for evaluating and implementing MRP II
systems. The general methodology is almost identical; some of the
terms and project team players may be different.
As with MRP II software, there are two
fundamental choices— make or buy, with some degree of
enhancement. MRP II software is considerably more mature than PDM
system software. Rarely if ever is it rational to develop MRP II
software in house.
In the case of PDM systems, however, the
decision is not quite so clear cut, due to a number of factors.
One is the rapid evolution of the software. Another factor is the
limitations of current technology. These limitations may cause
companies to think twice about the scope and intensity of their
ambitions until software matures to a higher level.
The evaluation/selection process is similar to
that for MRP II, but the sources of software are quite different.
As background, the reader should first understand the nature of
the market. By the definition of PDM systems presented earlier,
there are over thirty packages available from software vendors,
although only about half represent any substantial system.
Most of the vendors originally entered the
market from the direction of CAD packages, not MRP II. Their
impetus was the need to control the proliferation of information
being generated by CAD systems. However, many of the packages are
expanding in scope to position the software as enterprisewide
solutions and not just for managing CAD.
There are more than thirty commercially
available software package sources in the U.S. There are a few
more in Europe; but the major players are all U.S. based. CIMdata
offers a review and evaluation service for PDM packages.
When evaluating the vendor's response to checklists, both for
applications and technical capabilities, bear in mind the lack of
standardization of terminology. There is not yet an APICS-type
dictionary! Furthermore, a capability that is checked as
"Yes, we have it" must still be analyzed.
Interpretations may be different, and the vendor's terminology may
not be the same as the team's.
Be sure the team understands how the software accomplishes
the checked capability.
To be Continued
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