Thousands of functional components, tens of thousands of parts, and millions of lines of software, all working together correctly and safely all the time: That’s a car. The complexity of building one is daunting. The complexity of building millions of them, year after ever-changing year, can be overwhelming.
But that only scratches the surface.
The millions of vehicles turned out by any major manufacturer aren’t millions of copies of the same thing; they’re millions of very different things, cars in tens of thousands of functionally and electrically unique configurations based on feature content. Product variation is the only way to remain competitive and meet customer demand. Every one of those configurations, with the thousands and millions of pieces specifically selected and put together for that configuration, must work correctly and safely all the time. The need to handle mind-numbing amounts of variation, and do so correctly every time, is a third level of complexity at least as formidable as the first two.
The Cost of Conventional Product Development
Ad hoc approaches to manage this variation throughout engineering and product development are no longer feasible. The worst of these approaches treats each different configuration separately. When changes occur to the product line—new feature updates, defect fixes, optimizing design changes, or introducing a new part—the change must be applied separately to every configuration that needs it. This results in wasteful and costly duplicate effort—and the very real possibility of introducing costly errors if the change is not made perfectly in every configuration.
This can also become a management nightmare, as changes to products ripple across the enterprise. Organizations expend enormous amounts of time and effort addressing certification and compliance documentation, product marketing, portfolio planning, sales automation, training, support, service, maintenance, disposal, and more — all activities beyond engineering, and all of which require attention to variation.
Feature-based Product Line Engineering (PLE) is an engineering discipline that harnesses the similarities among related products, while respecting and managing their differences. It not only lets companies manage mega-scale variation, but it also reduces the exponentially rising costs involved with engineering multiple members of a family individually instead of the whole family at once. It works by creating a feature catalog, a compendium of the variation present in a product line. The feature catalog is rendered in an easy-to-read language that stakeholders from executives down to individual contributors across all disciplines and departments can use to achieve a shared understanding and mindset about the variation space of their product line. Commercially available automation software manifests a set of feature selections that define a variant into all of the business, engineering, and supply chain artifacts necessary to support that variant, including supplier specs, digital engineering models, software code, calibration sets, AUTOSAR artifacts, wiring harness designs, network traffic models, bills of materials, and much more.
With feature-based PLE, different divisions are able to focus on innovation and product excellence that allows them to excel professionally and develop quality products. Business and engineering leadership are realizing remarkably higher productivity, lower overhead costs, shorter time to market, reduced workloads, higher quality, and less chance for error by adopting PLE. This translates to a more diverse and innovative product line that more easily accommodates the rapidly changing product variations that the market demands.