During recent years, “mass customization” has emerged as the new business frontier for the manufacturing and service industries. At its core, mass customization is about providing products and services that are tailor-made to each customer’s demands and wishes, while keeping manufacturing, distribution costs and delivery times at levels comparable to mass production.
This strategy of combining customized solutions with economies of scale is attractive in theory but difficult to achieve in practice. This is especially true within those industries that Configura serves. In this blog, we introduce the concept of Parametric Manufacturing, which we see as the last link to true mass customization.
In a previous blog post, we wrote about “The future of space planning.” We discussed how Parametric Graphical Configuration (PGC) software streamlines the sales and order process for companies manufacturing and selling parametric and configurable system products.
We’ve seen many examples in which product complexity gives rise to operational complexity – which in turn creates an overall business complexity leading to poor profitability and limited competitive opportunities.
The front-end of the problem is the inability to efficiently handle the large amount of configurations in the sales and order process – unless one is using a PGC-based solution.
Let’s go a step further in the value chain of a company by including the manufacturing process and its supporting information technologies. We see PGC as a fundamental prerequisite for an optimized customer-driven production process.
PGC is the foundation for mass customization and Parametric Manufacturing.
But to take full advantage of PGC in manufacturing, companies have to move away from using part numbers to describe products and their structures. In doing so, you take manufacturing capabilities to the next logical level. We call this Parametric Manufacturing.
Moving away from part numbers
While manufacturing has evolved significantly during recent decades through robotics, lean principles and ERP systems that control and optimize production, the information necessary to specify each order is still stuck in the traditional, rigid and limiting use of part numbers. They were created for human specification and order entry. Before the advent of lean production, CNC machining and robotic manufacturing, part numbers made sense because manufacturing supported only a limited number of variants.
However, with lean production, there is no need for preproduction and storage other than predictive – what is anticipated by the manufacturer. And with CNC and robotics, kitchen cabinets and desks and the like can be customized to any dimension (within the limits of the machine producing it, the maximum size of the material used and other engineering limitations).
Yet the complete planning and specification of most such products today still has to “pass through” the bottleneck of part numbers, severely reducing the customer experience and product options that can be given to buyers.
Every customer order is unique and has its own challenges. Predefined limits based on part numbers make even the smallest change in an order a cumbersome and costly exception to the otherwise streamlined production chain. Yet, customization is in high demand today.
The ideal solution
Salespersons and designers must master a staggering number of choices and associated product rules in order to avoid specification errors – in reality, it’s an impossible task. So, they resort to selling only what they know.
Even the most competent salesperson or designer will sell only a subset of what is possible and still make costly errors. A more flexible product allows for improved customer service that will help to win orders.
Clearly, companies need a computer-based drawing and ordering system – a rules-based PGC solution that “understands” products and assists designers and salespeople by handling the technical details while letting them control softer aspects such as aesthetics and ergonomics. The ideal solution presents products as a small number of symbolic product concepts – flexible building blocks that “know” how they can be combined and adapt logically to their surroundings according to programmed product rules.
Imagine using your computer to specify complete and aesthetically pleasing product solutions by picking and placing a few simple building blocks into a layout and letting the software “snap” them together. Think about it:
There are only so many sane ways of putting a chair with a desk. Or, when two desks are connected, legs and brackets are automatically placed and generated according to rules and the surrounding layout. With PGC and Parametric Manufacturing, each product placed – or automatically added by a rule – has precise knowledge of its parameters, materials, options, prices and order data.
The result is a solution in which salespersons and designers can focus purely on design and fulfilling customer requirements. Ordering becomes automatic, instant and error-free at the press of a button. Order transfer bypasses complex part number coding/decoding entirely and sends complete parametric product models directly to the ERP system.
Parametric Manufacturing is the natural evolution
That’s why Parametric Manufacturing is the natural evolution to an implemented PGC solution. By introducing dynamic product structures – ones that are not based on static part numbers – a company can take full advantage of configurable products. There are no longer any real reasons for companies that manufacture products – such as kitchens, office furniture, laboratory furniture, shelving, architectural walls and partitions – to work with static product offerings and set dimensions.
We’re convinced that all manufacturers of parametric and configurable products eventually will use PGC software if they want to be competitive in the future. Part numbers will cease to exist because they no longer serve any function. By removing them, automatic special dimensions will flow unrestricted to production where the receiving manufacturing machines are not restricted by dimensional changes. This evolution in the design and specification of complex products is a natural consequence of the robotic and computer revolution that is taking place right now.