Product Configurator

Product configurator

The product configurator built by Solidsystem is the software tool that allowed CA-BE to automatize and simplify technical and commercial backend activities.

The creation of technical breakdowns for the workshop and the management of quotations and orders can now be carried out either by company's personnel or by the sales representatives' network.


The project starts back in 2007. The first objective was to share the company's CAD library with third party developers. An online catalogue met that requirement allowing anyone to download any CAD part autonomously. The inherent limit of such solution is that the user has to have some technical knowledge on mould making to decide what to download. It was therefore more useful to designers and engineers than to administrative personnel.
To go beyond the technical user base in year 2008 the development of the product configurator is started, with the following requirements:

  • easy and rational user interface; anyone must be able to assemble a valid product in seconds, with no training
  • some functions can be delegated to different user types
  • all CAD elements belonging to the configuration have to be packed and delivered as a single file
  • client personnel must be fully autonomous in creating new models templates
  • automatic synchronization of users and items with company's ERP
  • orders and quotations must be in PDF format
  • automatic export of orders from web configurator to company's ERP
  • multi-language support

Architecture

The configurator is a system of two servers: the "local" server installed on customer's LAN and the "public" server hosted in a server farm. This architecture allows to overcome some limitations while maximizing performances and availability of service.
The adoption of a single local server architecture (although technically feasible) would have required a non negligible investment in term of connectivity because an inexpensive ADSL connection would have been insufficient to manage concurrent incoming connections. Furthermore any malfunction to the server, to the router, to the landline or a prolonged electrical blackout would have made the site unreachable.

The configurator installed on a single server at an hosting company grants far greater connectivity , better resilience to faults and improved availability of service. Some operations - such as the data exchange with the company's ERP - would have been problematic and, in case of no internet connectivity, the customer would have not been able to use the configurator.

With a two-server architecture we got the best of both solutions: speed of access, LAN-only data exchange with ERP, improved service availability, application redundancy.

Under the hood

The configurator is built on a LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, PHP, MySQL.  This choice prooved to be very reliable and concurred in keeping the cost of the project low. For specific tasks such a sending emails, generating PDFs or server data exchange we relied on tried and tested Open Source libraries. To make the user interaction with the configurator faster and easier, the application makes an extensive use of AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript XML). We choose Yahoo's Javascript library (YUI): solid, versatile, powerful and fully compatible with all browsers we tested them with. Using only widespread Open Source libraries gives the customer the freedom to choose a different technological partner for future product development.

Configurator logic

At first we thought about building a configurator whose relations between the various objects were coded with boolean logic (model X requires articles Y and Z but not W, if Z1 is present Z2 is also required , ...). Yet, during the analysis proces,s we found out that the number of possible combinations of models and dimensions, would have required a huge work to create and maintain all the templates.
We then decided to build a parametric configurator. Every model is defined by a sequence of formulas and parameters that varies according to the chosen size. With this logic it is possible to define the characteristics of an element according to previously chosen elements (i.e. length and quantity of screws according to the size of the chosen plate)  or to provide alternatives for one element (i.e. for model W, with dimensions X and Y, the thickness of plate P can be 10, 20 or 20).
At the end of the configuration steps the database is searched to retrieve the items that match the geometrical constraints calculated upon user choices, to generate a quotation, the technical breakdown and the relevant CAD element collection.

Model templates maintenance proved to be so easy and intuitive that customer made new templates autonomously in no time with minimal training.

To give more flexibility to the system more configuration modes have been implemented:
- the fully guided one, where the user is given only the choices that will ultimately produced a valid configuration
- the second mode let the user select different length for some calculated elements, thus partly overriding the configurator fail-safe rules
- for power users and CA-BE personnel is also available a configuration mode where the type, the quantity and the heights of the elements is selectable from a set of elements with less geometrical constraints (i.e. show only plates with dimensions X by Y ); the user is responsible for putting together a valid configuration

Commercial workflow

Dissemination of commercial information is a constant concern of every company management. To satisfy two apparently inconciliable requirements - send the quotations and avoiding indiscriminate access to competitors - all documents are sent in PDF format, via email.
The commercial workflow is comprised of the following steps:
a) the visitor of the site completes a configuration; if he's a registereduser he can ask for a quotation, otherwise he can only view the technical breakdown and download the CAD elements
b) the quotation request is transmitted to the local (in-house) server; at the same time a confirmation email is sent to the user and a notification email is sent to the customer sales office
c) the sales office - using the configurator administration backend - evaluates the request and replies with a quotation. With just a click.
d) the user receives the quotation in PDF format
e) when confirmed, the quotation can be exported to the company ERP. Again with one click.

A different workflow is available for the commercial network. Each sales representative is able to generate quotation but only for customers within his own client portfolio. Even these quotations are sent to the local server to be later exported to the ERP.

Delivery times management has been automated too. The system calculates the expected delivery date taking into consideration the company holiday calendar and other parameters. Sales representatives are able to manually override the calculated dates.

Impact on organization

A project as complex as this one commanded a fairly long development time. Deployment has been carried out in steps to let the customer and the sales network to get accustomed to the new system. Acceptance has been very positive, even beyond expectations. The project benefited  from continuous feedback by customer's engineering department, sales office and from website users who helped in refining and perfecting the configurator.
The final product, closely modelled on the requests of the different users fully matched the expectations with great satisfaction of both the customer and the development team.

Gained advantages
- administrative personnel is able - without any technical knowledge - to configure a valid mould base assembly
- generating a quotation requires literally few seconds; before the configurator it took minutes in the most favourable cases
- chances to make mistakes have been practically zeroed
- sales network is able to generate quotations anytime and anywhere, as long as there's an intenet connection available
- designers gather all CAD elements as a single, coherent archive
- selling prices are updated in real time
- the product manager and engineering department can put new products on the market in a very short time, with minimal effort
- speeding and easing of low value-added activities (such as quotation writing) freed resources that can be assigned to more strategically relevant tasks

Solidsystem configurator is a software solution that really makes a difference.

Info

For more information about the configurator features, expandability, possibility of integration with your business activity and for sales information, please contact us.