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Constraints, rules or relations - what's the difference?

Posted On Monday, November 2, 2020



In CPQ, there's a lot of talk about the way you describe how the products can be configured. Some vendors talk about constraints, some about rules, some try to get around it by calling it constraint rules (I'm looking at you Apttus/Conga!).

All in all though, who cares about what they are called? The more important question is how easy they are to set up and maintain.

Tacton calls it constraints. If you look up the word constraint, it's a limitation or restriction - which is actually a good way to think about it. Without constraints all combinations of all items in the product can be combined in any way the customer wants. With a constraint, you limit the way you can combine the product.

So if you have 100 rims and 100 tyres, and you want to describe the valid combinations of these - how do you do?

In Tacton, you try to figure out the natural law, of why they work together. So, why does a tyre work with a rim? Well, they obviously have to fit. So the width of the rim needs to match the width of the tyre. In Tacton language:

rim.width=tyre.width

And that's it. It's a natural law. It's true today, and it's true tomorrow. Most likely it's true in 10 years (if we haven't come to flying cars by then...). I want to point out, that usually, there's a number of constraints working together, so there's going to be constraints about diameters, materials, tyre patterns etc. But let's stick to one constraint for now.

So now you may be thinking, is there any other way? This seems to be the smartest way?

Yes, this is the smartest way - but there are many more ways you can do this. You can write relations, e.g.

tyre A works with rim A, B and D
tyre B works with rim C
tyre C works with rim D and E

This works. And sometimes this is the only way to describe the product (typically where things have to be tested to ensure it works). But this way stinks in general, because is the first relation true tomorrow? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? So it becomes a very cumbersome way to describe things. Also, this is an easy way to get to 10,000 rules or more.

So, in summary. Ignore what the product description method is called. But do make sure it's easy to set up and maintain over time!

The Visual Asset Creation Process - Part 1

Posted On Thursday, October 15, 2020



Note: This blog has previously been published on www.tacton.com. The author is Marco Lang, Tacton’s Senior Visualization Product Manager. Marco has more than 10 years’ experience working with visual asset creation, and configuration at Lumo Graphics, and now Tacton.

Showcasing your manufacturing product to buyers is an important aspect of the sales pitch for your company. Many companies lose opportunities because they rely heavily on text-based descriptions of products. That’s why it’s as important as ever to add visual configuration to your sales pitch.

Visual representations of your products, services and brand are key drivers of online engagement. Digital assets link your customers and company by giving a way to accurately interact with your products.

In this blog, we’re going to take a deep dive into the visual asset creation process and how putting in the time on the back end will ultimately benefit not only your sales team but most importantly, your customers.

Digital Twin 
A Digital Twin is a digital model of a physical counterpart (product, system or process), describing its characteristics, attributes and behaviors. Or to be more precise, a Digital Twin is the link between a Digital Master (Master Data or Template) and a Digital Shadow representing a unique relationship to a specific real-world counterpart.

This virtual representation dynamically collects and combines data from the field as the counterpart matures along the different life-cycle stages. Business systems such as data from engineering, manufacturing, marketing and sales sensor data from operation to service and maintenance. This connection allows new ways of analysis, simulation, optimization, prediction, monitoring, documentation and communication for increased operational efficiency. 

A Digital Thread 
Learning and growing by capturing data from the past and current behavior creates a Digital Thread representing the birth-to-retirement records of the product as it moves through its lifecycle.

Depending on the use case or the goal of a Digital Twin (e.g. manufacturing, operation or service, …), different kinds of data is collected on a Digital Twin.

Visual representations (3D Models), as part of a Digital Twin, enable the end-user to evaluate the product by looking at its shape, form or fit and analyzing and understanding its features, options and constraints.

visual asset creation

(Image showing form, fit and function use cases of visual representations)

Configuration-compatible 3D real-time Models build the core of Tacton’s Visual Configuration solution.

Visual Configuration of a heavy vehicles

(Image of some configuration possibilities of a truck)

Visual Assets
All data and files that are necessary for a configuration-compatible 3D real-time visualization are referred to under the umbrella term “Visual Asset”.

Important Visual Assets are: 
1. 3D Models
2. 3D Scene with its environment
3. Materials and Textures

3D Model (Mesh/Geometry) 
A polygon-based model representing the product’s shape and components in 3D. 

visual assets

(Image of a polygon-based model of a teapot)


3D Scene 
The virtual 3D scene defines the scenery in the 3-dimensional world the product is put in. This includes the environment/surrounding, lighting and cameras to look at the product.

The environment can be a simple Background image or a complete 3D surrounding adding additional 3D models to the visualization. Check out how we do it with our Tructon or Parker Lift Demos.

Lighting in a virtual 3D world is as essential as it is in real life. Without any lighting it is dark and the product is not visible at all. Therefore, Lighting is a crucial part in setting up a virtual 3D scene.

There are two ways of lighting. Gathering the information from a 360° high dynamic range image (HRDI) or by setting light with specific light types and their individual properties like in a real photo studio.

Cameras define the different viewpoints on a product in the scene, often along with interaction possibilities and constraints like degrees of freedom and distance/zoom restrictions.

(Image of different scene elements like light, camera and environment)


Material 
While 3D Models define the shape of an object, Materials define the surface properties and therefore the look and feel of the object in the scene. Depending on the underlying calculation models and their parameters the visualization can range from simple colors to real-world looking surfaces approximating real-life lighting behaviors, for example by using Physical Based Rendering.

(Image of a teapot with two different materials)

Texture 
Textures are images used by Materials to help create realistic materials. They help to add details and real-life variations of materials over a surface. Those images can be created from scratch in dedicated applications or retrieved from real-life photographs.

In many cases, it can be helpful to simulate e.g. heights or small details on a surface via textures to keep the overall performance of the visualization as high as possible.

(Image of materials using additional textures for diverse looks)

End-User Constraints to Consider: 

System capabilities 
Since 3D visualization is executed on the customers’ device, (think cell phone or tablet) the performance of the system is critical to the experience.

Although there have been huge improvements in consumer hardware (graphics cards) and platform capabilities (native and browser applications) over the last few years, there is still a very disconnected technology landscape out there.

Less capable systems prevent the usage of optimized functionalities. And if a device doesn’t support the amount of data necessary for the visualization, the visualization will not be complete or not showing anything at all. Therefore, experiences are typically designed to work well on the lowest common denominator. 

Download speed 
Since all necessary visual assets need to be transferred to the users’ device to get displayed by the visualization, the amount of Visual Assets, the internet connection speed and stability is affecting the experience as well, especially the initial loading time till the visualization is visible for the first time. The bigger the visual assets are used or the slower the connection is, the longer it takes to download the content and to start the experience.

Rendering Performance 
Depart from the capabilities of the underlying system, the rendering performance depends on other criteria as well, like Visual Asset Weight and the resulting Visual Fidelity (Realism).

Visual Asset Weight refers to the “complexity” of the Asset. The important performance measurement for 3D Models are the number of polygons those models are composed of. The higher the number of polygons, the slower the performance of that 3D model. Lightweight assets are 3D models with a low polygon count.

Besides the individual weight, the actual number of different objects in the scene can be a very crucial factor as well. Many different objects with different materials typically relate in a higher number of Draw Calls on the graphics card, impacting the rendering performance since more work needs to be done.

For Texture, the weight defines the dimensions and the texel variety within the texture. For Materials the weight defines the complexity of the underlying shader, referring to the number of textures combined and the complexity of the underlying algorithms.

Optimizing your visual asset creation is essential to a good end-user experience. Part 2: Optimizing Visual Asset Creation will be available in a few weeks.

CPQ for the Truck Industry

Posted On Thursday, October 1, 2020

What's unique about sales and product configuration in the heavy vehicles manufacturing industry (or in other words - CPQ for truck manufacturers)?


I might be the person that has analyzed and spoken to the most truck manufacturers in the world in relation to CPQ. I've met 7 out of the 10 largest truck corporations in the world.  

I thought I might summarize the unique requirements of this industry:

Legacy

All truck manufacturers are heavy users of (semi-)old legacy systems. They have all been configuring their products since the 80-ies or 90-ies. This means that whatever system (and specifically CPQ) you introduce - it needs to be heavily adjusted to fit into the existing system landscape. Many of these systems are very specialized - and sometimes uniquely built for the manufacturers. Since they often old, good APIs may be missing. 


Systemized BOM usage
It's quite common generally in the manufacturing industry to separate Engineering BOMs from Manufacturing BOMs. It's also getting common to introduce a Service BOM. Since truck companies have been working with configurable products for so many years - they've systemized the usage of multiple BOMs. 

One thing that most truck manufacturers use is the concept of a Sales BOM (they might call it something else like 'Variant Codes'). The idea is to separate the 'As-sold' BOM from the 'As-delivered' BOM. This also separates engineering updates of BOM-items from Sales. So only when an engineering updates actually changes the function the customer receives - that's the Sales BOM item is updated. This decreases the need of maintenance of CPQ during the product lifecycle. 

Localized needs
The needs of the customers differ quite a bit between markets, due environmental, regulatory or cultural reasons. 

Local market offices has a big influence on all the three letters of CPQ (configuration logic, how to price the product and the look-and-feel of the quotes). 

This means that the global configuration needs to be flavoured differently for each market - with market unique defaults and optimizations. Local accessories may be needed in addition to be included in the CPQ.

Body builder integration
A truck is nothing without it's body. And body builders are usually local, specialized and (most often) small companies. Ideally, the customer should be able to configure the vehicle and the body in one CPQ - but that requires a tighter co-operation between the two types of manufacturers. 

As a bare minimum the CPQ needs to allow for sharing CAD-drawings for the body builder before the truck is actually built. An easy workaround is of course to limit the configurability - and use semi-standardized drawings - but that limits the sales. Note that this does not only apply to mechanical CAD, but also circuit diagrams etc. 

Calculations
There are a number of calculations that need to be done as a part of the sales configuration (e.g. turning radius, weight distribution per axle, powertrain optmization). Some of these calculations are simulations. 

Let's take the powertrain optimization: the optimal combination of engine, gearbox and axle gears for a specific usage of the vehicle can't really be configured. Essentially you have to use heuristic rules to find the most likely good combinations - and then run an external simulation of the combinations. This means that the CPQ has to be 'open' for including these calculations - during runtime. 

Complex Configuration
A truck consists of a large number of configurable options (500+), and each option can consist of many alternatives (20+). This means that the theoretical number of configurations is even larger than the most complex configurations. 

Most manufacturers solve this by creating 'sub-models' - a sub-set of the product which they let their sales reps offer. However, one big issue with this approach is that quite often neither the customer or sales rep know exactly which model is the optimal one. 

Traditional guided selling just doesn't do the trick - because you might not be able to know the best model until you're halfway through the configuration. The trick here is to let the user configure the whole product family at the same time - and let the configurator help the user find the optimal solution - not necessarily a predefined model. 

Summary
There are a lot of unique complexities in CPQ for the truck industry. Some you might recognize from your industry even if you're now working with trucks. 

If you need help with CPQ - you know who to contact!


cpqbot - cpqbot.se

Posted On Saturday, September 26, 2020


cpqbot is an automation tool for Tacton CPQ.

cpqbot automates the creation of models, pricelists and document templates.

cpqbot helps you integrate external data from CRM, PLM, ERP into your cpq-logic and thereby increases quality and accuracy to keep your business in sync.

cpqbot is a cloud based robot that helps you do the things efficient and with high quality. It also extends the functionality of Tacton CPQ with functions such as PIM, CMS and system configuration.

cpqbot helps you focus on your business while the robot takes care of your daily routine.


Contact us and we can tell you more. Use the contact form or call us at +46 762 09 85 57.

Is sales ready?

Posted On Thursday, June 11, 2020




Customer often ask us if we think their company is ready to digitalize sales. It’s a fair question and the answer is almost always yes. For the company it’s simple, if we don’t digitalize our sales our competitors will.

When your competitors start using digital tools for selling their products it has been proven to have a great impact. When things that previously took months now can be done in days and when days can turn into minutes, that’s when it will get very difficult to compete. If you’re the one still doing old-school, that is.

The question I often ask is not if the company is ready. Normally production is all in for doing things in a structured and well thought out way. They’ve been doing it that way for centuries by now.

Product development have also learned to use new tools, both to revolutionize the way things are calculated and optimized for better utilization and environmental impact.

But there is one department that often is two steps behind. Sure, they’ve got fancy gadgets and they’ve all learned to master tools like Power point, Word and e-mail. They have often been forced into some kind of CRM-system to align with the tracking and the forecasting.

When it comes to selling products, it’s often a completely different story.

Some manufacturers still believe that selling exactly what the customer is asking for is the way forward. The guys in production knows the problem this creates, the girls in product development know all to well how this turns the job more into firefighting more than anything else.

But sales is often ok with doing what’s really bad for the company. They'll often prefer to keep doing it wrong.

Therefore, it’s time to get the act together and understand the difference between what you COULD sell and what you really SHOULD sell. There's a big difference, both in practice and when it comes to bottom line profit.

Digital tools (and in this case I’m particularly taking about CPQ) will draw a very defined line between good and bad when it comes to customer offerings. As I said in the beginning, this is an easy decision for the company. But is sales really ready for this?

If your sales reps still think that full flexibility is the only way the product can be sold, then maybe CPQ is not for you. If you can’t accept that some proposals should never see the light of day, then digitization may not be for you.

So, my advice is for companies that think digital presence is essential in these times is very simple:

First of all, you need to make sure your sales department is ready to do thing right.

If not, leave it to your competitor. To find new ways into the future.


Tom

Posted On Monday, November 25, 2019



The effort and cost of implementing CPQ is driven mostly by the quality of the documentation of your product. And let’s be honest – your product is not well documented.

So, is everything hopeless? No, because your company probably has a “Tom”. Who is Tom you might say? Let me tell you a short story.

One of my first projects at Tacton was with a company that produces really big machines, we’re talking €5,000,000 and 10,000 options big. When planning the project, the project manager sketched a project plan where the whole configuration model was supposed to be finished in three months. I tried to convince him that this was completely unrealistic, especially considering the team consisted of 3 people, the experienced product expert, me and a junior modeler. I did not convince him, and instead got ready for a tough project.

I clearly remember one of the first days of the project, when we were working on some oil tanks that the big machine needed. I asked the product expert about which oil tanks were available, and what the rules were: “Yes, they’re right here in a special Excel sheet I have in my laptop, and the rules are in my head”.

The product expert was a man in his early sixties that had been with the company for over thirty years. He knew everything about these big machines. He knew all the options, all the sales reps; and in practice, most important quotes passed by him before being sent to their customers. His name was Tom.

We did finish the project in three months – and it was entirely due to Tom. Not only because he knew everything, but also due to the internal political strength of Tom. If Tom said that the company should not sell customized electrical cabinets – well, then it was a decision. No design by committee, no delayed decisions.

I bet you have your own Tom in your company. Take care of him or her. But watch out, the ‘Toms’ are usually ready to retire within a few years. Are you prepared for what happens when he or she does?

Maybe it’s time to contact us at cpq.se to document all this knowledge in a CPQ tool? You’ll get a smoother and more efficient sales process as a nice bonus.

Note: Tom’s real name is something else (he might even be a woman).


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