More products, fewer parts—this is the shortest characterization of the variant management business value. From a marketing and manufacturing perspective, that is very much true, and that is what CPQ (Configure, Price, Order) tools do: generate a 100% BOM (all parts of a variant) using a 150% BOM of a modularized product platform (all parts of all variants). But that only works if the variability logic and the resolved variants are already verified, something that CPQ tools cannot do because they only understand BOM structures. That verification involves (depending on the market, there may be other areas):

  • Functionality (that it does what is intended),
  • Compliance (that the right set of requirements is met),
  • Configuration (that the parts can work together),
  • Implementation (that all engineering domains are accounted for, ex: software),
  • Manufacturability (that it can be manufactured),
  • Documentation (that the content is configured correctly),
  • AND that all teams involved have the same understanding of what that variability is, including supply chain partners.

That multi-domain scope of variability logic is an increasing challenge for the industry faced with a need to deliver increasingly complex products. The inability to effectively manage it at all levels of product representation and at every stage of a product lifecycle directly impacts time to market, cost, CoQ (Cost of Quality), and team productivity.


At the core of the problem is the modularized product platform strategy where the individual elements (modules or subsystems) of the platform are designed, built, and manufactured by a multiplicity of internal and external teams which often do not communicate well, and which often have a limited understanding of the overall product.

For example, does:

  • … the software team responsible for the embedded code within an automotive control unit have any understanding of the mechanical interaction of the parts?
  • …  a requirements team understand the impact of a specific requirement across the platform architecture and functionality?
  • … one team know how the other team is impacted by what they do?

Since the variability of a product platform has everything to do with how that platform is modularized, it is also directly connected to an efficient strategy of product variability. The two are, in fact, inseparable.

The Risks of a Modular Design

Recently I had the pleasure of talking with Prof. Patrick Hillberg at the CIMdata PLM Roadmap event focused on digital thread. Hillberg invested a lot of time in thinking through the process of platform modularization and how it can lead to unforeseen emergent properties with catastrophic consequences, see Better Products Need Better Cultures: The GM Ignition Switch Recall. While the paper does not focus on product variability, its focus on the platform modularization strategies is an eye-opener when thinking about validating product variability, quote: “Decomposition leads to dysfunctional cultures.” It is a long read but worth it. He concludes that in the GM case, life was lost because the airbags control disabled them based on the engine status instead of the vehicle velocity. The mechanical misbehavior of the ignition key acted as a trigger (the engine went off while the car was moving) and not the cause (airbags turned off because the engine turned off–but the car was still moving). The core issue was that the two functional modules were implemented in silos. This is not an argument against product platform strategy; it is an argument that module “silos” can and do lead to tragic consequences.

My point is that similarly to a team approach to a platform design where everybody (including suppliers) has the same understanding of the product’s design intent – variant strategy also needs to be a part of every step of the process and at every level of the engineering V model. It is the people and the process. This, in turn, means that the only effective variability strategy is the one that allows to explore, define, and verify the same variability logic against any product structure: requirements, functionality, architecture, module breakdown, manufacturing, documentation, and others. While the individual product representations have different breakdown structures, the same variability logic should be reusable against any of them.

Aras Variant Management

Recently released Aras Variant Management focuses squarely on this challenge: reusing the same variability logic in different product representation contexts and at any step of a product’s lifecycle. The application separates the definition of the logic from the structure that it resolves, allows saving the logic under a specific name, and reuses it as needed. Its dedicated data model is an integral part of the Aras’ PLM platform digital thread. It connects variability to all other digital assets the platform manages, including requirements, system functionality, architecture, implementations in different engineering domains, manufacturing processes, documentation, and others. Platform services can be configured to manage variability configuration, revision, change management process, team collaboration, and others.

Conclusions

Variant management is not limited to marketing and engineering. It is a fundamental part of the modular product strategy that involves internal and external (supply chain) teams—an essential element of Systems Thinking. As such, it impacts people, processes, and tools, and its impact should be considered in that sequence. Since variant management and modular platform design are critical to your products, you need to ask yourself if your product variability strategy takes that into account at every stage of the product’s lifecycle, by every team, and by all partners and suppliers. Not doing so may allow you to create more products with fewer parts, but it may also create the hidden problem of unforeseen emergent properties and behaviors. That can cost you billions, affect your product brand, and risk the well-being of your customers. Does Variant Management manage just BOM? Think again.

Learn more about Aras Enterprise SaaS and the benefits of Systems Thinking and Variant Management.