Product configuration as an activity can be regarded as satisfying a customer’s demand by creating a product which is composed by a number of pre-developed components. The importance of product configuration is currently increasing dramatically as for a wide range of industrial companies. This is due to an increasing demand from customers for individually specified products and due to better technological opportunities to handle the customization efforts. Therefore, product configuration is a strategic choice for the industry. The following situations illustrate its importance:
PC AI, January-February, 1996
A 747 is made up of over 6 million parts, and a customer can choose among hundreds of options. … Every option the customer chooses affects the availability of other options, and changes the plane’s price. It takes the sales agent days or weeks working with company engineers to make sure all the chosen pieces fit together, renegotiating the price at every step.
… customers sometimes received servers without room for the required disk drives, or without connecting cables, or with the wrong kind of preinstalled software. Fixing these mistakes costs … money, time and customer loyalty.
Forbes, June 3, 1996
However, in order to perform product configuration efficiently and effectively, the product must be prepared for it. Currently, products have to be modularized and assembled from pre-developed components but it is important also to be able to include some engineering operations in the configuration processes. Further, sales and production activities must match the opportunities and constraints of configurable products and new requirements for manufacturing and assembly and for planning and scheduling are developing.
Configuration involves selecting and arranging parts to fit product and opertional constraints. Configuration problems may involve design, manufacturing, sales, installation and maintenance. The parts need not be physical, e.g. they may be actions in plans. Selecting and arranging combinations of parts which satisfy given specifications is the core of a configuration task. The specification of configuration tasks, in general, involves two distinct phases, the description of the domain knowledge (configuration rules) and the specification of the desired product. The configuration rules describes the objects of the application and the relations among them. The specifications for an actual product describe the requirements that must be satisfied by the product and, possibly, optimizing criteria that should be used to guide the search for a solution. The solution has to produce the list of selected components as well as the structure and topology of the product.
Product configurators are software tools to aid users including customers to develop approved product configurations quickly and accurately with a minimum of effort. These tools reduce engineering effort and improve the sales process. Product configurators are rules-based or knowledge-based tools that generate 1) a list of components or assemblies, 2) a product structure, and 3) associated documentation (e.g., maintenance manuals, assembly instructions, installations instructions, etc.).
See the NPD Body of Knowledge for further information.