April 28 2016

Configuration rules as art form

I bet that somewhere on your laptop you have an unwieldy Excel sheet containing all the options available for the products your company sells. In some column far off to the right you might have some comments describing the basic rules for when the specific options are available.

But getting an overview of this complexity is no easy task, since all the options and their rules interact. Wouldn’t it be neat to somehow visualize this complexity?

Connecting the dots to configure a truck

Let’s take a truck configurator. We’ll extract all the truck’s options and draw them as dots. Next, let’s connect all dots that have a direct rule between them using a line. Finally, let’s use a so-called clustering algorithm to pull dots that are closely related to each other and color them with the same color.

The result? Quite a pretty picture. A custom piece of art that we can print and hang on the wall in our office (which we’ve actually done, by the way). So what can we learn from this exercise?

Everything is connected

Almost all the dots are connected in our configurator. In the image (or should I say painting), only five questions (two on the far left of our picture and three on the far right) stand on their own. Everything else has at least one line connected to something, which in turn connects it to the core of the configuration problem. This means that if your customer asks you to change part of their quote – like changing the truck’s tire – you might need to change something far away, like the air deflector on the roof of the truck. This comes in handy when you have to consider truck height restrictions, for example.

Clusters of options

But with these clusters, the options more likely affect other options that are close to each other. This makes sense, of course; these clusters are subsections of the truck like the cab, power train and body. If you change the steering wheel in the cab, you would expect it to affect other options in the cab like the instrument panel.

Pick the right tool for complex customization

A final (and yes, kind of obvious) point about the image – there are lots of options in a truck! If you need a configurator for a product of similar complexity, you’ve got to think about what tool to use. Excel spreadsheets or simple rules-based configurators simply won’t let you create a masterpiece.


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