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Product Configurators Explained!

Mathieu Huardby Mathieu Huard

Blog > Diver's Log

Product Configurators Explained!

Mathieu Huardby Mathieu Huard

In the past few years, product configurators have become a fundamental piece of the e-commerce ecosystem. From Nike shoes to IKEA kitchens, local businesses and multinational companies alike have faced the growing needs of consumers in terms of personalization. As a consequence, configurators have not only become more frequent, but also more sophisticated.

The convergence of several technologies has made this trend possible. One the one hand, agile design methods have developed, including parametric design. It is now possible to pass on aesthetical and functional design tasks to different stakeholders of the product life cycle. Additionally, modern fabrication methods such as additive and distributed manufacturing open the doors to flexible and cost-effective supply chains even for complex, variable products. In other words, mass customization is becoming a reality

Finally, the rise of cloud computing and online visualization technologies (WebGL, Unity, ARKit…) gives an opportunity for consumers to have an authentic experience of the products they need.

As a consequence, many industries have realized the importance of product configurators. However, they don’t always understand the stakes and the challenges that come with implementing them. In this article, we try to address these challenges.

What Is A Product Configurator?

In reaction to the growing need for personalization, many digital agencies have started to offer product configurators. It is often frustrating to evaluate the expertise of such agencies. Indeed, they rarely give details on the types and key functionalities of the configurators they have experience with. Still, configurators cover dramatically different types of applications, with different objectives and target audiences.

The most visible configurators are the ones specializing in personalization and sale of consumer goods online. However, they are only the emerged part of a much bigger iceberg. Configurators can serve various other stakeholders of a product. Indeed designers, engineers, operators or sales representatives often need a choice navigation tool that centralizes the product options and constraints.

In those cases, a configurator becomes a powerful communication tool between stakeholders with various levels of expertise. In other words, the ideal platform to implement a mass customization strategy. As a consequence, it is crucial to have a good understanding of the type and complexity of the product itself. Only then can the conception and implementation phases of a configurator begin.

The Different Types Of Customizable Products

We detail here an arbitrary classification of the different types of customizable products, with increasing complexity. The classification is based on the current landscape of configurators ([1],[2]) and other attempts to define such categories ([3],[4],[5]), but most importantly on the experience we have gathered at ShapeDiver in conceiving and implementing multiple configurator projects. 

For clarity, we have tried to limit the use of existing but confusing terms as much as possible. As an example, we do not mention PTO (Pick-to-Order) products, since there exist multiple definitions of the term.

Category 1: Variations And Options

product configurator with variations and options
Example product with variations and options. (source: http://www.spreadshirt.com/)

The least complex category of personalizable products is difficult to name because it is very broad. Most e-commerce platforms enable the creation of variations and options and use these terms or similar ones.

Variations are global, high-level properties of a product that can be customized. A t-shirt available in 4 sizes and 5 colors is a typical example of a product with variations. The amount of variations is usually small, a constraint which most e-commerce platforms enforce. For example, Shopify has a limit of 100 variations per product.

Options represent on-demand features which add a personal touch to the finished product. A logo on a t-shirt or an engraved text on a wedding band are common options offered online. Some platforms offer the possibility to upload an image or type a text and visualize it on the product. More commonly, customers can describe their requests through a text box, without triggering any visualization.

Category 2: Configurable Products

product configurator for a watch
A configurable watch with many components and a combination logic. (source: eoniq.co)

Of course, all variable products are configurable. However, we name this category after the type of products that have seen the most visibility during the rise of modern product configurators. These products show the perfect balance of an interesting but not exceedingly complex choice navigation. Hence the explosion of configurators for this category of products in the past three years.

A configurable product is not limited to global variations. It can also be divided into several components which are subject to their own variations. As a result, each component can be personalized and combined with the others, which creates a fast growing number of possibilities.

Additionally, configurable products often include a business logic which didn’t exist in the previous category. In other words, it is not always possible to create any combination of parameters and variations. This logic is often relatively simple, and can be modeled by a few straight rules. This is the main difference with the modular products from the next category.

Some e-commerce platforms can handle configurable products natively. However, most configurable products have a high number of variations which quickly hit the limits of standard systems. However, open source options such as WooCommerce and Prestashop allow the development of custom modules for such products.

Category 3: Modular Products (ATO – Assemble-to-Order)

modular storage system configurator
A modular storage system with a complex logic. (source: https://www.hhsystem.com/)

Configurable products from the previous category are, in a sense, already modular. However, we address here a category of products with two major differences.

On the one hand, modular products present a highly complex business logic. The simple logic of configurable products could usually be implemented without any specific tool, but modular products need to rely on a business rules engine and an appropriate database architecture.

On the other hand, modular products are rarely consumer goods. As a result, the associated configurators are not e-commerce tools but instead target technical sales representatives.

Due to their nature, modular products are a particularly good fit for configuration. With a well-designed, accessible data structure and a good integration of the configurator within the company processes, it is possible to largely automate the lifecycle of complex products.

Category 4: Parametric Products

tylko shelf configurator
Parametric shelves to the centimeter with Tylko.

Parametric products fall somewhere between modular products and completely bespoke products of the next category. The rise of parametric design allowed designers to conceive products with a wider range of variations than modular products, while retaining control over the choice navigation of the customers.

It is interesting to note that products of this category often feel less complex than modular products, from the configurator’s perspective. In particular, they are not always subject to a significant business logic. However, they are too complex to implement for most e-commerce systems and configurator agencies. The parametric shelf system presented above is a good example. Its few intuitive parameters are processed through an internal design logic and generate hundreds of thousands of product variations.

The vast majority of turn-key configurator solutions cannot handle parametric products. This is the challenge we are trying to tackle at ShapeDiver. The only other alternative is to invest in costly custom development projects, which will also prove hard to maintain and update in the future.

Category 5: Bespoke Products (MTO/ETO)

rafale aircraft in catia
Modelization of a “Rafale” aircraft using the CAD software Catia.
(Catia and the fighter jets market)

Bespoke products are fully manufactured after an order has been placed. We have grouped two sub-types of products in this category:

  • Made-to-Order products such as couches and tables which are made from scratch by local carpenters for their customers
  • Engineer-to-Order products which are typically parts of major contracts such as the order of new Boeing planes.

Of course, there are major obstacles to automating the production of bespoke products. Most of the time, they involve specific internal processes for organizing the business logic and database of the product, in order to generate quotes as accurate as possible.

A promising strategy consists in confining bespoke products to the category 4. This is called parametrizing the product, globally or partially. The challenge is to retain a maximum of the product’s complexity in a controlled parameter space that can fit an intuitive configurator.

The Different Types Of Product Configurators

It would be tempting to think that each category of products fits to a specific type of configurator. In practice, itis not always the case. Of course, there is a strong correlation between the complexity of the product and that of its configurator. However, two other factors play a significant role in the conception: the strategic goal of the configurator as well as the role and level of expertise of its targeted audience.

In practice, we discern four types of configurators that are useful to define an implementation framework. They are mostly organized around the targeted end users along the product life cycle. The first categories target clients or consumers of the end product. The next ones shift their focus to sales representatives and finally engineers, operators and executives.

Marketing Product Configurators

alucobond facade maker
Smooth and stylized visualization in the marketing configurator for Alucobond .

The role of a marketing configurator is to give some visibility to a complex product. It is useful for products that cannot be presented in an intuitive and attractive way using traditional documents. The configurator gives an idea of the range of possibilities but does not lead to a precise quote. In the best cases, marketing configurators become tools to arouse creativity within the audience. It gives a global overview of a complex product and initiates a sales process with a solid foundation.

All categories of products can be represented through a marketing configurator. However, they are mostly interesting for presenting complex products (categories 3, 4 and 5) through an attractive interface and visualization.

An example: Alucobond Facade Maker is a spectacular marketing configurator example. The strategy is to inspire architects and engineers working on a facade project. The presented range of options should convince them to use the Alucobond panelization solution.

Commercial Product Configurators

unruh furniture configurator
A fully configurable furniture catalogue by Unruh Furniture .

Commercial product configurators are typically part of an e-commerce website. If not offering direct sales, it will at least generate detailed quotes for a sales representative to follow up. Occasionally, commercial configurators will also export data used to optimize the supply chain, but this feature is more common within technical configurators.

Products from the categories 1 and 2 have been integrated in commercial configurators for years. However, modern technologies now allow more and more product configurators for modular and parametric products. For these categories, it is now sometimes possible to export manufacturing files directly from the configurator. This helps optimizing the supply chain beyond the sales process.

An example: the custom furniture store Unruh (Missouri, USA) offers a catalogue of more than 100 parametric products. Each of them includes a realistic 3D visualization and interactive animated parts.

Technical Product Configurators

modular house configurator
Design a modular house with the Habitat21 configurator .

With technical product configurators, the focus is on the details. This is sometimes done at the price of less realistic visualization than marketing and commercial configurators. Additionally, the interface might come with a learning curve. The main goal is to cover the product variations in an exhaustive manner. Technical configurators are often used by sales representatives and in B2B environments. They can target clients if they happen to have the required expertise to handle them.

In most cases, technical configurators need to generate precise bills of materials or even CAD files used for manufacturing. Another key feature is the flexibility to integrate ERP systems.

Historically, modular products (category 3) have been handled with technical configurators generating quotes (called CPQ – Configure, Price, Quote). Nowadays, modular and parametric products can sometimes be integrated in technical configurators that generate fabrication files and sometimes even be part of an e-commerce website.

An example: Habitat 21 has implemented a technical configurator for is modular houses. It includes a range of simple aesthetical parameters for the clients. More advanced construction features are also available with the guidance of a specialist.

Internal Configuration Tools

internal configurator architecture
Internal decision making tool by SOM. (source: Stephanie Tabb)

Internal configurators are powerful tools to help CAD engineers and designers to communicate smoothly with decision makers and even machine operators. In this case, collaboration features are key as well as the possibility to save and share specific configurations.

These tools never contain the whole information about the product or project, which is too complex to be embedded in a simple interface. The goal is to model and optimize partial processes and create stronger and efficient links between the different stakeholders along the supply chain.

Bespoke products (category 5) are the main targets of internal configuration tools. As discussed in the previous section, their conception sometimes involves the parametrization of a subset of the product’s features.

An example: architecture firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill LLP (SOM) uses a configurator to facilitate decision-making within the team.

How To Tackle A Configurator Project

Many products and agencies claim to offer turn-key solutions that are able to tackle all of the above needs. It seems sensible to consider those claims with caution. An honest website usually allows to identify strengths (in big, bold headers) and weaknesses (between the lines) of a solution. Ironically, it is often more challenging to clearly state the strategy and the targeted audience of the configurator, as well as evaluating the complexity and variation space of the product.

Additionally, each company has adopted and developed specific tools and processes that cannot always be replaced. As an example, offering a custom ERP module with the configurator can sound attractive. But if such a solution is incompatible with the existing processes of the company, the new costs of adoption have to be factored in. It is more important to evaluate the modularity of a technology and its ability to integrate an existing ecosystem without upsetting it.

All in all, and regardless of the adopted solution, one key factor needs to remain at the forefront. Implementing a successful mass customization strategy involves the creation of a flexible knowledge database about the product, that can be engaged at any point of the product life cycle.

Resources

[1] Configurator database by Cyledge

[2] “Product configurator software”, category on Capterra

[3] “Four types of product configurators”, livre blanc publié par Autodesk

[4] “Different stocking strategies”, blog article by Ravi Kumar Singh

[5] “Arten von Produkt Konfiguratoren”, blog article by Combeenation