What is a Product Configurator?

Understand the benefits of a powerful configurator

Introduction

Having a good product configurator can be the difference between getting orders right, or having costly errors in production. Determining the size and type of configurator your company needs is key. A product configurator that is too weak can put the company at risk by introducing errors in the configuration sent to manufacturing.

Before you can decide on what type of configurator you need, it is necessary to understand what product configurators are and how they work. This blog post will outline the benefits of using a product configurator in complex products and environments that will help you make an informed decision.

Definition

A product configurator is a piece of software used by manufacturers. This software portrays the product rules that need user input to finish. This step needs to be completed prior to an order being sent to production. At its simplest level, product configuration is an interactive process where the user chooses a feature, which is validated via a configuration rules engine, before allowing the user to make the next choice about the remaining features on their product. The seeming simplicity of this process hides the complexity in construction and validation of the rules used to drive the product configurator.

What does it mean to be configurable?

A product is configurable if it is capable of being customized, or it can be rearranged or adjusted post-production. To configure simply means to design or adapt to form a specific combination of features for a specific purpose. Products with multiple features (or “variants”) can be configured either by the end user to match needs or wants (e.g. the colour of, or the choice to include a sunroof in, a car). For the manufacturer, proper configuration ensures that the product lives up to regulatory purposes such as the voltage an electronic device runs at (e.g. 220V for Europe or 120V for The United States). This is a detail we as customers do not want to consider when buying an electronic product. We expect it to come with the correct adapter for our geography.

What does a product configurator look like?

A simple example of a product configurator is a clothes shop that allows you to tailor your own t-shirt. Their website would provide options to choose from a variety of features before finalizing the purchase, such as colour, sleeve length, material, size, style, art work/prints, etc.

Every time you make a choice, features that would contradict that choice would be made unavailable with an explanation as to why. For example, if you choose red as the colour of the t-shirt, you are not allowed to choose a red thread for the logo stitching. If you press the red stitch anyway, you would be informed of why this combination is not allowed. This provides the user with sufficient knowledge to then actively choose whether it is more important to have a red logo or a red t-shirt.

More choices brings greater complexity

This is relatively simple when dealing with a t-shirt configurator that has four features to consider. But with products that have more than 50 features, the scenario quickly becomes more complex. Take a hearing aid as an example (feel free to test it out yourself in this demo). In configuring the hearing aid, choices must be made regarding “standard” options such as battery type, preferred colour and placement in/around the ear.

Some of these choices may influence other choices downstream in the configuration process.  For instance, the choice of memory size impacts choices for telecoil and microphone.

A good product configurator will guide the user through the configuration process. In this example, the amount of memory in the hearing aid is a choice that influences several different features: If you want a telecoil (an antenna for your ears that receives magnetic waves and converts them to sound), then you cannot have an omnidirectional microphone in the hearing aid, only a dual directional, and you can only get 64MB memory and 4 CPUs. Because this hearing aid configurator is based on rules that explain these correlations, you as the user receive a small pop-up notification informing you that the choice about to be made has an impact on the following features.

Many of the configurators used in the manufacturing industry today cannot provide the security of knowing all configurations are legal, as they are based on older configuration technology. This insecurity can put the company at risk. Many manufacturing companies of complex, configurable products attempt to mitigate this risk by having a team check all proposals before sending them to a customer; a process that is time consuming and open to human errors. And errors do unfortunately happen.

Let me give you two real life examples. Have you ever received the wrong item in an online order, for instance when ordering clothes? Most of us have. It is a relatively small issue, and after contacting the clothing company, sending back the wrong item and waiting 2-4 days for the right item, the incident is quickly forgotten. While it can be frustrating, it only cost us a bit of time. Now imagine the same happening with a $500,000 machine that has been produced especially for your company (engineered to order or ETO). The sales and manufacturing process of such an expensive machine usually take months, and if an error is not caught in the initial process and the machine is built, the error will be manifested in the finished product. Any plans your company had for that machine will have to be postponed, which might entail a loss for your company. The manufacturer also takes a huge loss, because they now must re-produce the machine to the (hopefully) correct specifications at their own cost. So, the initial phase of configuring the product correctly first time around is a must to minimize risk for both manufacturer and customer.

The hearing aid demo is an example of a product configurator based on new generation configuration technology. Using a compilation of the full solution space of the product (all the features, rules and conditions), the product configurator has the knowledge of all legal configurations of the product and can thus inform the user when a choice would result in an illegal combination of features. With this level of configuration technology, the product configurator will produce 100% legal products, making the process much smoother and safer for both customer and manufacturer.

If you would like to know more about the potential of knowing the full solution space of a product, I urge you to look at this page about solution space. It really is a game changer when it comes to focusing resources on your most profitable products, while recognizing significant cost savings from eliminating product combinations that are rarely, if ever, sold.

This blog post is the first of a series of three posts that all look at product configuration as a topic. The next two posts will address this theme by looking at different use scenarios, and at what to be aware of when looking to choose or upgrade a configuration engine.