The mass customization and modularization of products has caused a rapid growth in the number of product variations. Developers aim to build countless new product variants for specific atomized target markets or user groups – but are wary of the increasing software and hardware development costs this entails. Is Product Line Engineering the answer? Read on for PLE best practices to provide product variability at optimal costs.
The term Product Line Engineering (also known as Product Family Engineering) refers to the engineering of a portfolio of related products. A set of products that form a family share certain engineering assets. Using product variants management best practices can help realize efficiencies in the engineering and development of these common elements – especially in software development, where PLE is considered a relatively new concept.
What is Product Family Engineering?
The traditional approach to variants management is often called clone-and-own: to create a new product variant, engineers will simply copy the most similar product available, copy it, make changes, and call it a new product. While this strategy does in fact provide cost savings, those savings are limited and occur only once in the product’s lifecycle.
To enable further savings in resources (both development costs, time, and effort), the PLE approach emerged. Product Line Engineering requires the central management of a superset of shared product assets and components. Both bug fixing and the further development of these assets is centralized – updates can then be easily propagated to all variants of the product line.
While employing the PLE approach requires a significant change in the development mindset of the company, it can help maximize the ROI on product development. By reusing assets and continuing development with a focus on the product line rather than individual products, a PLE organization can boost product development efficiency.
Strategies for implementing PLE
But changing the engineering approach and mindset of the company is a tough challenge. The following best practices help your organization plan and implement a PLE concept that helps reduce the development costs of a complex product line of multiple product variants.
1) New function: Product Line Manager
Organizationally speaking, the first thing you’ll want to do when adopting the PLE approach is appointing a person responsible for the overall product portfolio. The job of this team member will revolve around optimizing the product portfolio with all its shared core assets. They will be responsible for all the product lines in your company, and they will have a key role in identifying where further efficiencies may be realized.
Together with any organizational restructuring you may deem necessary, the creation of this new role will help make the cultural transition that PLE requires.
2) Cost/benefit analysis
In order to build a well-performing product portfolio, you will need to assess the costs of development, and the benefits or potential ROI of each feature and each product. Then, you will have to estimate the reuse potential to work out a sound PLE strategy. This is a key step in optimizing your product line from a Product Family Engineering point of view.
Doing an in-depth cost/benefit analysis will help you decide on a product portfolio that allows maximizing the benefit from reuse, and will therefore help boost the profitability of your product line. It’s also a great task for your new Product Line Manager.
3) Identify market segments, matching product variants, and shared assets
To start with, you will carry out a commonality/variability analysis of your product line. In essence, this means identifying the shared elements between your products. Creating a product or feature map helps understand the relationships between products and their shared assets, and contributes to the development of an efficient product portfolio.
You may find that while the traditional way of product line development wouldn’t allow you to target a niche market, the reuse of shared assets enables cost reduction to the point where your company could be engaging with a new market segment with minimal investment.
One thing to keep in mind here: sure, more complex shared elements may give you an opportunity to open up new markets and ensure product longevity. But they are also difficult to maintain, meaning further costs. Make sure you assess these costs and compare them against any revenue you hope to realize from targeting a new market segment.
4) Tool support
As with any new methodology you set out to apply in order to enhance your organization’s profitability, there is also an initial investment. In the case of PLE, you may find that your current product development toolchain fails to support the efficient delivery of a more complex product line.
More specifically, requirements engineering is a crucial aspect of Product Family Engineering. If you’re using a requirements management tool that doesn’t support the adoption of smart reuse strategies, you may fail to realize the full potential of PLE.
Analyze both current processes and your future PLE needs, shop around for a tool infrastructure that supports the efficient management of multiple product variants. Most modern Product Lifecycle Management tools will support your requirements, but PLE is a somewhat novel approach in software development. Look for an Application Lifecycle Management tool with advanced product variants management capabilities to support your PLE strategy.