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Giving Customers What They Want, When They Want It

Web-based software lets customers build products to order and have them delivered at the same time and for the same price as off-the-shelf items.

An article about CustomWise in Computer-Aided Engineering/CAEnet (January 2001), By Diane Sofranec

In today's competitive marketplace, manufacturers are attracting and keeping customers by building products to their unique requirements and delivering them at the same time and for the same price as standard items.

This process is often referred to as design-to-order, engineer-to-order, build-to-order, and manufacture-to-order, depending on the complexity of the product. Web-based software helps manufacturers, suppliers, and customers manage, access, share, and store the product-related information that supports this manufacturing process, no matter what it's called.

This concept applies to many different industries: a bicycle manufacturer uses its customers' leg and arm measurements to design bikes that fit each individual customer; a washing machine maker installs a custom-designed motor in each of its products; and an aerospace company customizes the interiors of its planes to suit its customer's tastes. Though it may seem like a great way to improve business, those thinking of offering such customized service should know that implementation can be somewhat complicated.

Link to the Supply Chain

In order to offer customers the products they want when they want them, manufacturers are turning to suppliers to outsource the manufacture of parts.

"The manufacturer is creating an environment where the supply chain plays a greater role in the design and innovation of the product," says John Bruggeman, vice president of marketing for Alventive Inc. "You're starting to see automotive, aerospace, and telecommunications manufacturers outsourcing more and more of the design."

Collaboration between the company that supplies the specially required parts and the company that manufactures the end product is now an important part of the design process.

"This is where design collaboration is important," says Joe Malloni, director of Strategic Planning for SDRC. "If a customer asks for something that we don't build, we have to decide if we design it in-house or have someone else do it for us. The trend today is to do it outside the company."

Manufacturers must find and work with suppliers that can meet the requirements for the part, based on the customer's needs. Alventive offers a suite of Application Services software and an Application Server that lets users form on-line design communities. "We allow companies to work with their supply chain in the context of their Internet-based collaborative product community," Bruggeman says. The company's Design-to-Order Solution family of products lets members of the supply-chain work with manufacturers when the product is in the early stages of the design phase. An Initial Parts Sourcing application makes it possible for manufacturers to source the most appropriate custom or nonstandard parts from suppliers.

Because a supplier may be located half way around the world, Web-based software that features viewing and markup tools is an important part of the design process. Manufacturers can quickly approve a supplier's design, which helps eliminate errors and rework and speeds delivery time.

Unigraphics Solutions Inc. offers software and services to aid the collaborative process. The iMAN Portal provides a single access point to product data and ensures collaboration throughout the product life cycle. Users can view 2D and 3D models, regardless of the CAD software that created them. The company's iMAN product data management system helps manufacturers reduce cycle times and improve productivity. As a result, the use of software like iMAN and the iMAN Portal will become more prevalent as customers demand specialized products.

"This is an emerging market full of requirements that need this type of technology," says Lonny Greer, Product Marketing manager for the iMAN line of business, Unigraphics Solutions. "Companies are not going to revert back to their old ways and make products in ways they used to. Advances in product development technologies are only moving forward."

Managing Requirements

But managing data is only one challenge that suppliers and manufacturers must face. How the custom-designed part affects the rest of the product must also be considered.

"The more options you give a customer," Malloni says, "the more it affects the requirements that will define the product."

That's why it's important to use software that efficiently manages design changes. SDRC's SLATE application enables a manufacturer to develop hierarchical views of important data such as a product's assembly process, safety considerations, validation tests, cost constraints, and work breakdown structure. This information is essential in determining trade-offs when building-to-order and can be used to help manufacturers determine what impact the custom design will have on the cost, quality, and manufacturability of the product.

Another product that addresses the needs of companies developing and delivering build-to-order products is Windchill, from PTC. Tom Sears, director of Product Marketing for Windchill, says the software is being implemented in a range of applications, including the configuration of instrument panels for boats, custom bearings, and power generation equipment.

Windchill links and automates the capture of customization requirements directly from the customer or sales engineers. It then carries the customization requirements through to the production and delivery process. The software includes engineering management tools that are designed to control the customization environment.

Figure on Configuration

Product configurators are also used to help manufacturers coordinate the components of a product during the design process. Choosing the best configurator for an application depends on the complexity of the products being built.

PTC offers a configuration modeling module that lets companies lay out a product and define which components will be standard, will have a set of pre-defined options, and will be customizable. "This enables companies to offer a higher level of customization in select aspects of the product, while controlling customization that does not offer a competitive advantage," Sears says.

CustomWise is Design Power Inc.'s configuration software that supports the definition of custom-engineered parts and components. When a design has been completed, the software creates a 3D model, bills of material, and annotated drawings.

"CustomWise is also useful in the sales process," says Ulf Strom, president and CEO of Design Power. "The immediate feedback with 2D and 3D visualization allows a customer to immediately review a product design, make changes, and see how they impact the look and parts required."

The software not only reduces the cost to generate proposals, it also ensures proposals are correct and well-documented.

Finding a Solution

The software used to offer build-to-order products dramatically reduces time-to-market, which is important to customers who expect custom-designed items in the time it takes to make those available off-the-shelf.

Manufacturers that offer build-to-order products must be able to quickly and effectively manage and incorporate design changes. Fortunately, plenty of software programs have been designed to help accomplish these tasks. With the help of the Internet, the possibilities are endless when it comes to giving customers what they want.

Diane Sofranec is Senior Editor of Computer-Aided Engineering. Contact her at

CAE Links

Alventive Inc. --
Unigraphics Solutions --
Design Power Inc. --
PTC --

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