Configured for success

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How much simpler the days when you could limit choice according to supply for mass produced goods, along the lines of Henry Fords infamous quote, you can have any colour, as long as its black. Individual configuration and customization remained the traditional preserve of large and complex manufactured items, or unique/very low volume specialist items with the correspondingly long lean times that were associated with such make to order (MTO) manufacturing.

 

Today however, consumers demand nothing less than almost infinite choice and variety from already hard pressed manufacturers, even in the realm of Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG). To make matters worse, consumers want their more personalized and customized products quicker than ever. Early attempts to offer a wider range of pre-configured options were short lived as option ranges increased ever upwards, and with them, consumer expectations. Has the answer finally been found in the recent arrival of the latest generation of Product Configurators?

 

 

Steve Whitehouse, marketing manager at SSL WinMan (pictured left), explains why the answer may be yes, for now. Product Configurators have been around for some time now, but all too often failed because they simply dealt with the sales order side of things. They represented an intuitive, order entry mechanism for a customer and certainly gave the impression that you were going to get exactly what you ordered. What they werent too good at was integrating with the actual manufacturing side of the business. Consequently, they couldnt provide the accuracy required in terms of cost and delivery time. At best, they provided a level of educated guesswork.

 

 

 

Mike Spragg of Infor Global Solutions (pictured right) agrees. For a Product Configurator to truly deliver its full potential, it has to be fully integrated with the system that controls all the other manufacturing processes within a business. For instance, to generate an accurate quote in terms of cost, the Configurator needs to have access not just to the more obvious costs associated with a product, for example raw materials etc, but also to all the less obvious costs. These can include any re-engineering costs within the design department, re-tooling costs depending on materials used, subcontracting costs depending on special finishing etc.

 

But cost is only half of the problem. Customers dont just want their order at the right price comments Whitehouse, they want it at the right time. And this is where fully integrated Product Configurators can greatly help. By having real-time access to current stock availability, delivery schedules from suppliers, manufacturers have the means to know when a certain job can begin. Combine this with live planning and scheduling data from integrated Advanced Planning and Scheduling (APS) functionality, and a manufacturer has the means to genuinely know when an order can begin, and when it can be completed. By linking to a distribution system, delivery variables can be taken into account. The end result is an accurate delivery date, with an accurate price, delivered to the customer at the point of enquiry or order.

 

If all is well, the order can then be placed. If it isnt, integrated Product Configurators also offer an additional level of help to the manufacturer. Spragg again. By linking the Product Configurator with all the manufacturing data, the manufacturer can give the consumer options by allowing them to investigate a range of What-if? options. For example, if a product cant be delivered within the required timescale in a certain configuration, an alternative configuration possibly with a different material or component which can be delivered, can be displayed. The consumer can even experiment with different variables in order to meet his/her price/delivery time requirements, all with the same assurance that these will be definitely met.

 

As if all this isnt enough, Product Configurators are also very Lean friendly. According to Whitehouse, Well designed products configured through a suitable configurator are able to be pulled through the production process simply and transparently from the top level demand, deriving their lead time from how well and at what point in the production process the component pieces and structures are able to be held as generic. For example, a product that is able to be generic until the very last phases of production is going to enable a high number of stock turns and a smooth agile production flow to be achieved. The production benefits achieved are primarily a function of the engineering of the product and the engineering of a configured product determines the level of success of the employment of lean and agile techniques on the shop floor. Moreover, asserts Whitehouse, Well engineered, configured product not only dictates the success of its production and planning but can effectively make the sales and engineering operation lean as well.

  

Just how important are Product Configurators becoming? Noel Scott is Systems Manager at leading forklift manufacturer, Combilift, which has recently invested in  Infor ERP Syteline to assist with its business growth, primarily on the strength of its product configurator. Above everything, we knew that a first class Product Configurator would be essential to our ongoing success. We currently have a dedicated team of 4 full time engineers designing warehouse layouts and customising our forklifts to enable customers to maximise use of the available space. A sophisticated configurator would complement the effort we put into this to supply clients with the exact combination of requirements they need. Our company motto is Customised Handling Solutions and we needed a system to match our company ethos. In addition to this, we needed strong planning and scheduling capabilities because we cant afford to have an order delayed because one component isnt in the right place at the right time.

INFORMATION: Free information is available from INFOR on the subject in this story. Click here to request a copy

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