This post is part of a 3-part series on Product Line Engineering in collaboration with PLE experts BigLever Software. Read all 3 parts of this post series to gain insights into the framework and practice of feature-based Product Line Engineering and to understand how PLE can help you facilitate the development of complex product lines with multiple product variants!
The complexity involved in developing product families today is growing exponentially. Back in the early 1900s, Ford could get away with mass-producing its only model, the Model T, in only one colour (black) for 12 years – and still managed to become the dominant automotive manufacturer of the era. Today, in the age of increasingly individualized customer requirements and mass customization, that’s hardly a recipe for success.
With more and more product variants (each filled to the brim with complex features and embedded software) in advanced engineering products, developers and manufacturers are forced to juggle elaborate product families with an intricate system of commonalities and variations between them.
The result? Millions of dollars and thousands of costly man-hours spent on managing ever-growing product lines – with many of these resources wasted on redundant work. Modern Product Line Engineering (PLE) helps companies efficiently manage this complexity at scale while optimizing costs, product quality, and time to market.
Read all 3 parts of our blog post series on Product Line Engineering:
Growing Digital Product Line Complexity
Developers are stepping up product differentiation to stay competitive by targeting more and more narrowly defined market segments. In addition to this global trend, certain sectors are also experiencing growing customer demand for mass customization. A good example is the automotive industry, where product configurators (increasingly important parts of the digital buying experience) enable buyers to custom-configure hundreds of options for their new vehicles to suit all their needs. Add to this the effects of digitalization: the growing role (and variety) of software solutions in engineered products.
The upside of this feature diversity, of course, is increased revenue due to the better fulfillment of customer demand. The downside, however, is the associated costs of managing the parallel lifecycles of all these product variants using traditional engineering methods.
Clone-and-own: product-centric development
Traditionally, product development teams have been managing variations using the clone-and-own approach. Simply put, when building a new system, they’ll identify the most similar existing system, copy it, and make changes to it as needed. From that point onwards, this new variant will be managed as a new standalone product – so any savings resulting from the reuse of existing assets only happens once, at the time of making the new product’s copy.
Further efficiencies may be realized in various aspects of product development, for instance, in the management of product requirements in software development. While these (and their related assets) may be reused, the advantages are limited to this specific engineering discipline rather than the entire lifecycle. Since product variants are managed separately, attributes are specific to a product. There is no overarching concept of managing commonality and variability – instead, specific cases of commonality are managed individually.
The inefficiencies (and chances of error) introduced by this approach cannot be overcome once an organization starts to scale its product line. In order to maintain product quality and to shorten their products’ time to market, developers can adopt Feature-based Product Line Engineering strategies.
What is Feature-based Product Line Engineering?
Feature-based PLE is a way to manage the myriads of variations (including all combinations thereof) within a product line. Applying a Feature-based Product Line Engineering approach enables you to build & manage a product line portfolio as a single production system. This provides better control and more opportunities for achieving efficiencies compared to the traditional way of managing a number of parallel development streams for standalone products.
PLE helps engineer a portfolio of related products that enables efficiency by handling the similarities and variability between the many members of a product family. The way PLE helps achieve this is by first creating a base platform architecture to describe the overarching fundamental commonality in your product line. This base architecture covers all the similarities shared by all members of the product family, as well as planned variations in the product line.
Source: INCOSE PLE Primer
This results in a superset of shared assets and variation points. Taking a “factory approach” to Product Line Engineering lets you flexibly apply a subset of variations with minimal cost and time while optimizing reuse across the product family.
Benefits and challenges of PLE
Using Feature-based PLE helps avoid asset duplication and the associated redundant work. By making the engineering process leaner and more efficient, organizations benefit from saved costs, better product quality, and faster product delivery. Further advantages are decreased product risks, increased market agility and productivity, and the resulting customer satisfaction.
For example, in a traditional engineering environment, a change affecting three separate products will be executed across the three teams working on those products. In a PLE-based system of engineering, that change will only be made once on the relevant items of the asset superset. That change will then be applied to each product using those specific assets, resulting in higher productivity for the organization.
Source: INCOSE PLE Primer
While the benefits are clear, transitioning to a Feature-based Product Line Engineering approach can be challenging. The primary task at hand is to institutionalize the required mind shift. Teams used to working on individual products need to be trained to help them understand how focusing on the product line as a whole will benefit the organization and will make their work easier.
When transitioning to Feature-based PLE, top-down is the name of the game: clearly defining a vision and setting transparent business goals, adequately backed up by leadership, is the best way to start a successful PLE adoption. A well-defined implementation plan helps guide the transition process.
Challenged by the development of sophisticated product lines with complex systems? PLE is one approach you should consider. Systems Engineering is another one that could help! Check out our primer to Systems Engineering: