When we think about manufactured products, we often picture identical products made in advance. They may vary in make, model, in size, but ultimately you decide whether to buy or not—those are your options.
Many manufacturers, however, make products that are customized to the unique needs of each customer, especially those who sell into industrial and construction markets. Instead of standardized products, they offer a product system, and each solution is configured to order. These products are typically modeled in Inventor or Fusion, then might be integrated into a BIM model in Revit.
That configuration process, in which the customer specifies what they need, is an essential step, one that has traditionally been handled by sales engineers talking to customers, then spec’ing out solutions over the course of days or weeks. Changes would take additional time. When the configuration was complete, they would manually generate a quote, at which point the customer would decide whether or not to buy. In industry, this known as the Cost/Price/Quote (CPQ) process.
Today, savvy manufacturers are using new digital tools to automate the CPQ process, increase efficiency, and create a better customer experience. Instead of talking to a sales engineer, buyers can now use web-based tools to design solutions themselves. Behind the scenes, intelligent 3D modeling systems make sure that the solution is functional, then generate the quote automatically, along with the Bill of Materials (BOM) and even production instructions. With automation, a process that used to take days and weeks can happen in minute or hours, and changes are equally fast.
A number of manufacturers shared their process and the benefits they achieved by automating CPQ at AU 2022.
Nucor Warehouse Systems makes rack storage systems used in the largest distribution facilities across the U.S. for companies like Amazon, Target, Cisco, Costco, and Coca-Cola. Eric Andres and Fredy Rodriguez of Nucor and Thomas Fitzgerald of Autodesk partner KETIV Technologies, explain how they automated their racking configuration process, reducing the time to a proposal by 75%.
Ryan Small and Don Boresky of SolidCAD, share their process developing Variant, a SolidCAD offering that allows their customers to develop bespoke automated configuration solutions, and the lessons learned along the way. They showcase the solution they deployed for Vent-a-Hood to create a configurator for customizing kitchen range hoods.
Kirubakaran Candassamy, CTO of KKMSoft, a technology consultancy based in Chennai, India, describes the process for developing a configurator for an elevator manufacturer that enables contractors and architects to configure their purchases in a web browser.
Time for transformation
Leaders from all three sessions mention the importance of automation to gain advantage in the market. “We knew that doing things the way that we had always done within our systems was not going to get us to where we wanted to go,” says Eric Andres, National Sales Manager at Nucor Warehouse Systems. “So we put a big focus on systems and processes to allow us to scale.”
“What are we talking about when we say automation?” asks Kirubakaran Candasemy of KKMSoft. “We simply want to have a complete integration of the processes that happen in a design team starting from the sales, right up to when the product is shipped. And ideally, it should be on a single platform where data flows between each of these stages and each of the process items.”
Speed and efficiency in configuration
The manual CPQ process has generally been time-intensive and laborious, but customers want results quickly. “When we're being asked to quote, typically, that turnaround time is not very long,” Andres says. “We really have to be efficient in that design stage. We need to be able to take information from a customer in diverse forms around what their storage needs are and design that as quickly as possible in a consistent manner. Speed’s very important.”
The priority, according to Nucor’s Rodriguez is “getting that quote turned around in a time where we can get the job, and ultimately communicate down to production, engineering, and our install team so that we can have the adequate time to meet the customer's needs and gain the job.”
Their solution, developed with the help of KETIV Technologies, was RackBuilder, a web-based configuration tool that automates large parts of the process. “With Rack Builder, we're generating 3D drawings, we're generating the bill of materials, and we were able to automate the proposal,” Rodriguez says. “We're talking about a few hours, where, typically, in our [previous] everyday process, we were talking about a week. That’s a 75% reduction in time.”
Creating a better customer experience
Most customers, while they have industry experience, lack technical knowledge about these product systems. This has made technical sales engineers essential to specifying a solution previously. With automated configuration tools, companies can empower non-technical users to explore options and optimize for their own needs. As Ryan Small of SolidCAD put it, “One of the questions that would often come to the surface is: how do I move this configuration beyond the desktop so that people who are not designers or engineers have the ability to do product configuration without having the knowledge of those CAD tools?”
“Because it's a web-based solution, a customer, or your vendor, or an architect can be a part of this configuration process using any device via their browser,” Candasemy says. “Also, any changes, revisions in models, or product updates are all centralized and seamlessly available across the organization.”
Integration with business systems and processes
Streamlining design and accelerating the bidding process—those are important benefits. But they’re just the beginning of what automation can help you achieve. All these speakers described how they are continuing to develop their configuration solutions to connect and automate other business processes.
“We are working on more than just the initial customer buying creation and looking at how to integrate this to the rest of the business,” Candasemy says. “You can not only create configurations—you can have a collaborative environment. You can generate business intelligence from the output. You can also track progress of your products, both in terms of design, direction, commissioning, and so on.”
The role of platform
This kind of web-accessible configuration tool that links to the full design and engineering capabilities of the product design model behind the scenes is only possible with a cloud-based platform. All three featured teams built their solutions using the APIs in Autodesk Platform Services, formerly known as Forge. The SolidCAD team’s class in particular presents lessons learned and best practices for your development process, including advice one which APIs to use.
“If you are looking to build a configurator, these four services probably represent the cornerstone of your configurator solution,” Small says. “First and foremost is the Design Automation API. This is really Inventor running in the cloud. Next is the Viewer API. This allows you the ability to view your file inside your web browser. And the Data Management API or service is really where you're storing your data on the cloud.”
“What [Autodesk Platform Services] provides is a complete integration of all systems behind the scenes with machine learning, AI-based generative design, and also with the ERP and CRM enterprise systems,” Candasemy points out. “It can be a design tool, and it can also talk to multiple applications due to its API capabilities and web hooks. It can also create multiple outputs beyond just drawings. So now you have an option to integrate with rendering, 3D printing, and so on.”
“The ecosystem is not only robust,” he continues, “But also a growing platform that can fulfill the dreams of enterprise-wide automation,”
Learn about automating configuration and the CPQ process for manufacturing anytime at Autodesk University.