Configurator software is available from several
sources, mostly as an integral module of each vendor's MRP II
software. The accounting firm EDO Seidman identified many of the
alternatives in two reports, "A Micro-Based MRP II
Comparison"  and "A Mid-Range MRP II
Comparison." By the author's own admission, however, not
all are true Configurators. If the vendor claims option selection,
it is offering configurator capabilities.
For software evaluators, a caution now is that
there is no accepted, industry-wide definition of configurators
that can be used for an objective comparison. But
software capabilities must include more than just a menu of
hard-coded options at order entry time.
Additional capabilities could include pricing,
unique routing and pick list creation, ability to handle
dimensional variations, option to assign parts numbers if needed,
simplification or elimination of modular bills, costing,
interdependency handling, integration to Available-to-Promise
logic for capability management and order confirmation, ease of
maintenance, compatibility checking and, of course, above all, the
software should be user-friendly.
Which capabilities are truly significant are
relative to a company's individual needs, particularly the
complexity of the option and variation callouts of the products.
Both the Configurator software and the
documentation lag behind MRP II on a maturity scale. Thus, another
caution point: vendor's literature is replete with such terms as the
only, truly unique, and the first. In view of the
relative newness of Configurator software, the classic rules of
software selection still apply; know what you are shopping for and
understand what you are looking at; don't hesitate to poke and
probe. Get a comprehensive demonstration, not a once-over-lightly
From a systems design and future planning
activity viewpoint, there are a number of potential
considerations. PDM systems vendors are developing their products
to encompass more and more of the product definition capabilities
of MRP II systems. On the other hand, MRP II packages are
continuing to expand in their ability to handle documentation
requirments, though at this time, textual forms, but not graphic
and other forms of files. The early growth of PDM systems occurred
in the Engineering documentation and process management areas;
the future growth path puts PDM systems directly in the growth
path of MRP II systems. Because of the newer technology
capabilities of PDM systems, however, will PDM systems be the
preferred choice to develop product definition capabilities? Will
PDM systems be the server and MRP II systems be the client in
future architectures based on distributed processing?
In the author's opinion, it is more logical to
base planning scenarios on the assumption that PDM systems will
become the server to the MRP II clients in distributed processing.
Configurators will become a subset of PDM
systems, not MRP II systems, as the capabilities of CAD software
incorporate more knowledge-based design methods. For To-Order
companies, the strategic significance of Configurators is more
flexible product customization and faster, more accurate customer
service, particularly if properly integrated with CAD. One
example is the Panasonic bicycle company.  Every bicycle that
this firm builds is designed and manufactured to individual
customer order. The company must deal with 11.2 million product
variations. Once an order has been received, it takes less than
three hours to design and three days to build a custom bicycle.
Panasonic's method may well become the norm rather than the
A recent article described the successful
efforts of two American firms to achieve improved customer service
through integration of product definition. Both Harpers, an
office furniture manufacturer, and Process Systems, a pump
manufacturer, have had good results from integrating Configurators
with CAD packages.
Product Data Management systems will be a major
component of Concurrent Engineering. PDM systems are Integration
Enablers—the potential to merge the islands of CAD automation
with the islands of MRP II and CAM automation. An effective PDM
system, however, with or without a Configurator, is more than just
software. Implementing these systems will cause major cultural
changes in the organization. No longer will over-the-wall be an
acceptable method for creation, release, and maintenance of
product documentation. The best results will accrue to those
companies who address the changes in its development process.
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