Manufacturing Configurator





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" [3] and "A Mid-Range MRP II Comparison."[4] 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 treatment.


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. [5] 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 exception.

A recent article described the successful efforts of two American firms to achieve improved customer service through integration of product definition.[6] 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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