In the early days of manufacturing products were not very complex and it was sufficient to provide a simple parts list, in order to define the product content. With time, the product complexity grew and the number of variants that some companies were offering the market increased; therefore product description models and tools had to be developed.
The next step in product description models was to introduce a hierarchical structure to the parts list to keep control over the evolving number of parts. But during the 70’s and 80’s products in some industries started having so many variants that it became too tedious to update each variant of each model as a separate hierarchical product structure. Companies started using labels to describe the usage of sub-assemblies that were alternatively used in different variants of the product.
In modern product description the whole structure is parametric hence configurable. The elements are abstract representations of design solutions and will only represent physical parts or assemblies when they are configured through assignment of values to the necessary parameters. The driver for the change from a parts hierarchy with variants to configurable structures is usually attributed to mass customization.
Evolution of product description models
During the 1980-90’s manufacturers in the developed world were faced with saturated home markets and sophisticated customers. The markets were so large though, that they remained attractive to emerging competitors from developing countries, typically entering the market with low price and relatively unsophisticated products.
Many of the traditional manufacturers responded to this competition with the continuous-improvement school. In continuous improvement, the manufacturer drives the employees to find faster and more efficient methods to develop and make low-cost, defect free products to be able to deliver new products to the market quicker. This enabled mass producers to quickly respond to changing market preferences, and to continuously invent and use new technology.
These manufacturers were able to continually introduce new products with more features, increasing the variety offered to the customer. A new paradigm emerged from this – mass customization. According to the mass customization guru Pine, a mass customizer is a company that “develop, produce, market and distribute goods and services with such variety that nearly everyone finds exactly what they want at a price they can afford”.
However this move move to mass customization created conflicts in the different system that had been optimized for low cost and lean production with relatively low variety. Continuous improvement and mass customization require very different organisational structures, values, management roles and systems, learning methods, and ways of relating to customers. It also requires a completely different approach to product description as described above.
Despite the fact that so many companies are struggling with mass customization, most manufacturers are joining the quest. Mass customization offers a solution to the basic dilemma of whether to produce large volumes of standardized goods at a low cost or to decide to differentiated products in smaller volumes at a higher cost. The choice does not have to be made; a true mass customizer can be both a mass producer and an innovative specialty business.
Mass customization requires a very different approach of selling products compared to traditional selling of standard products. The customers are offered a wide range of options of each product, and must be supported in the selection process. This site’s purpose is to look into the technologies and vendors of sales configurator systems which are required when selling mass customized products.