What companies need - and where they are

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Optimizing products and processes with Systematic Variants Management and Holistic PLE

by Holger Schmiedefeldt

Whether a company needs to modernize its variant management, invest in holistic product line engineering (PLE) or transform the entire business, depends on many factors. Having a closer look at the different adoption levels of systematic variants management and PLE helps companies to find out where they are right now, and what needs to be done to remain competitive with their products and solutions - now and in the future.

For most companies, the digitization of products is key to remain competitive. With the growing complexity of today’s products, outdated methods of product development are reaching their limits quite quickly. Complex products with a high proportion of software and new product requirements, such as continuous over-the-air updates over the entire life cycle of a product, cannot be developed in traditional ways - at least not reliably and sustainably. To develop and manage contemporary products and processes, a new approach is needed.

Each company is different. What is needed to modernize existing processes and products depends on the company’s targets, systems and needs. Generally speaking, there are three different adoption levels. Each adoption level is based on the immediate engineering needs. For companies that do not have a contemporary variant management solution in place or who use a “home-grown” system and bespoke tooling, the journey begins with adoption level 1. To optimize processes and products, a systematic variants management needs to be introduced. At this point in time, this applies to most companies. A clear indicator for adoption level 1 is that Microsoft Excel is still being used to manage product variants, rather than an industry-scalable dedicated variant management tool to deal with growing complexity.

For some, the journey continues

For some companies, the journey already ends once a systematic variants management has been put in place. Others want to (or need to) move on to the next level: Holistic Product Line Engineering. At “level 2”, there’s a need to configure product variants consistently - with potentially many thousands of features - while taking into account interdependencies between software, electronics and hardware. This stage also includes, for example, the replacements of legacy engineering tools with modern and cost-effective solutions.

In some cases, where a company is aiming for a complete digital transformation, the journey continues to a third level. This applies, for example, to enterprises who have the desire and vision to lead entire industries into the future, and who decided to focus on sophisticated software rather than on improving their traditional products.

What are the characteristics for each adoption level?

To help companies to understand where they are at this point in time, where they want to go from here - and what they have to do to reach the next level, the following characteristics for each adoption level may be of use:

Adoption Level 1 – Journey towards Systematic Variants Management

Adoption Level 1 means that either no variant management solution is in place, or a “home-grown” system and bespoke tooling.

Level 1 also includes:

  • Microsoft Excel needs to be replaced with an industry-scalable dedicated variant management tool to deal with growing complexity
  • The focus may be on a single system or product line of concern to improve reuse of engineering assets and manage product and system variation complexity
  • Integration with one or more engineering tools; the initial focus is often on an integration with a Requirements Management Tool and a MBSE Tool

Adoption Level 2 – Journey towards Holistic Product Line Engineering

Adoption Level 2 starts with the recognition that holistic engineering applied to ever-more software-intensive products and complex systems is a strategic business imperative.

Level 2 also includes:

  • The challenge of complex systems of systems, platforms and multi-platform approaches, many different variation drivers like markets, fast-changing technologies, product compliance and safety regulations for different markets
  • The replacements of Legacy Engineering tools with modern and cost-effective solutions, for example the replacement of legacy ALM and version control tools with more cost-effective commodity solutions like JIRA, Gitlab and Github
  • The adoption of model-based systems engineering (MBSE) in industry domains where this approach has not been used in the past
  • The need to configure product variants consistently - with potentially many thousands of features - while taking into account interdependencies between software, electronics and hardware; building these variants in a sustainable, safe and secure way

Automation and efficiency gains across the whole product engineering lifecycle, from design, to architecture, to implementation and test, to seamlessly integrated workflows with change management and Enterprise Systems like PLM, PDM and ERP.

Adoption Level 3 – Journey towards a Digital Business Transformation leveraging Holistic Digital Product Line Engineering

Adoption Level 3 is characterized by the transition from hardware-centric engineering towards software-centric engineering for software-defined products.

Level 3 also means:

  • Product engineering does not end with the configuration and shipment of product variants; the product will be enhanced with new and improved features and functions with over-the-air software updates and data configurations over the whole lifetime of the product
  • Individual personalized product variants will be configured by the customer by adding or removing features as needed, enabling new business models and revenue monetization opportunities
  • Engineering data will be collected at the operational product variant level, enabling smart engineering insights of how product variants perform in the field and where they can be improved, utilizing AI and Machine Learning on the collected product variant data
  • The reduction of the number of software platform variants at engineering level and smart reuse of software and data configurations across a smaller set of platforms will reduce cost and complexity in engineering. At the same time, smart Digital PLE will enable highly customizable software-defined individualized product variants
  • Product Line Engineering will transition to a continuous Product Line evolution DEVOPS approach, utilizing CI/CD best practices across hardware, software and data
  • Product variants will need to be safe, secure and sustainable and will need to meet and fulfill all regulatory and compliance requirements, making automated and smart variant management coupled with smart configuration management for all engineering assets at industrial scale an absolute necessity and imperative.

Always speak to an expert

As it is always the case with general advice and guidelines, it is important to keep in mind that each situation and each company is unique. The key to success is getting the support that is needed in form of experience, knowledge and manpower. Companies who are planning to take the next step on their journey to a digital and software-based future are therefore well advised to speak to someone who’s planned and accompanied these kinds of journeys many times before.

About the author

Holger Schmiedefeldt is Vice President Sales of pure-systems and has been an expert for software solutions in product development for many years.

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