Configuration Software Comes of Age

Enterprise configurators can reduce sales and engineering costs, increase profit margins and improve customer satisfaction. But what should you look for in a solution, and how do you go about implementing it for the best results? Here's how.


Data Flow Through the Extended Enterprise

To build and maintain an effective value chain, key information about customer orders must flow freely, accurately and in real time among all supply chain partners. This is particularly true for MTO/ETO and other companies where complexity is inherent. That's where configuration software comes in. It can eliminate the business process silos of information that reside in the sales, marketing, order entry, engineering, shop floor planning/routing and production departments and consolidate key data within a central repository.

Product configurators have come a long way from yesterday's front-end solutions, which were often costly and unwieldy, highly customized, involved long implementations, and delivered limited enterprise functionality. Basically, they were designed to reduce waste by preventing order errors and engineering snafus. Newer and more advanced configuration engines take a bottom-up, rules and constraint-based approach, relying on object-oriented database technology and bundling of business process templates to facilitate easy access to real-time information.

Characteristics of New Generation Configurators

What kinds of technology features should companies look for in an enterprise configuration application? First and foremost is integration — both integration of the configuration modules with each other, and integration of the configurator with existing enterprise systems, such as ERP, materials resource planning (MRP), customer relationship management (CRM) product data management (PDM)/computer-aided design (CAD) and advanced planning systems (APS). This integration with legacy systems is what allows users to access and retrieve data from a number of sources and import it into the central repository.

Second, the software should take a bottom-up approach whereby information — and the rules required to design, sell and build a product or deliver a service — are maintained in a centralized repository. By maintaining data in this fashion, information can be disseminated and distributed throughout the organization — and to channel partners — based on one complete configuration repository to accommodate and record ad hoc changes in real-time no matter where they occur. Additionally, this approach will eliminate the need to keep writing custom code every time a change is required for a product or service.

Third, the solution should be Web-enabled to foster close collaboration among internal and external supply chain players, allowing them to exchange real-time information from any location over the Internet, an intranet or extranet. With this capability, sales and order entry, as well as engineering processes, can be streamlined to eliminate redundant data entry (e.g., multiple BOMs) and excessive paperwork. As a result, customer response and order processing times typically drop.

Finally, look for a solution that provides a good match with your industry and business processes, and also includes specific industry and/or product line templates. Obviously, the sales, order, engineering and production processes required by an MTO manufacturer of doors and windows will differ from those required by an ETO producer of heavy industrial processing equipment. Likewise, the needs of a configure-to-order (CTO) telecom or financial services organization are quite different from both manufacturing models. Industry-specific templates bundled in with the software solution and an industry best practices library available from its vendor, go a long way towards ensuring a good fit and accelerated hassle-free implementation.

Look for Broad and Deep Functionality

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