Manufacturing Q&A: Optimized Product Configuration, Industry 4.0 and a Better Buying Experience

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Manufacturing Q&A: Optimized Product Configuration, Industry 4.0 and a Better Buying Experience

Industry 4.0 offers industrial equipment manufacturers new and better ways to interact with buyers – who expect highly customized and configured products. Beyond customer expectations, it’s critically important for revenue, demand, production and supply chain planning to have integrated configure/price/quote capabilities.

Ultra’s Michael Chesin spoke with Nick Castellina, Industry & Solution Strategy for Infor, about optimizing the customer experience. Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:

Michael Chesin (MC): We hear a lot about Industry 4.0. What is the impact of these technologies on customer service in manufacturing?

Nick Castellina (NC): Customer service is the foundation of everything manufacturers are doing to operate more efficiently and effectively. They are building more innovative products, enabling better supply chain decisions, and promoting efficiency in their operations. And this all is being done to deliver a better product at a better cost to their customers.

The customer experience is core to Industry 4.0. When you think about Industry 4.0, you think about connectivity, and you think about bringing together machines, software, people and processes in to one integrated whole.

When it comes to the customer experience, it means being able to be more flexible, to be able to deliver more-customized, unique, tailored products that meet the customer’s needs very specifically.

As it relates to Industry 4.0, it’s that connectivity and the ability to leverage machine learning and AI to gain an understanding of what the customer’s needs are, when they will need your products and what type of product you should offer.

MC: Why is optimized product configuration so important to customer satisfaction?

NC: There is a significant need for highly customized, unique products – a product of one for an audience of one. As opposed to standard, off-the-shelf products, it’s important to be able to ensure that you can design products to enable customization and configuration. But, for example, it also comes into play when you can communicate better with more timely quotes.

In industrial equipment manufacturing, its very difficult to provide an accurate quote. You’ve got to work across finance, product development and supply chain to, as a sales executive, get an understanding of what can be delivered, what it will cost, when it can delivered – and sometimes whether it’s a product that can even be delivered. Often, by the time you return with this information, the prospect has moved on to a competitor. So configuration management and the ability to configure, price and quote quickly is a significant differentiator for manufacturers today.

As it relates to connectivity, it’s about providing a better customer experience. You may be able to automate quoting, but you still need to have human interactions in the sales process. To differentiate your company, maybe you have a portal where your customers can visually configure a product. So they can see what it will look like, make any changes themselves, know what they’re going to purchase, and buy it directly from you. That takes it to the next level. And you’ve really improved the customer experience so that they will keep coming back to buy from you.

MC: What technologies are needed to facilitate collaboration across sales, engineering and manufacturing – and how is that key to successful product configuration?

NC: You need a solid platform to orchestrate all these decisions across your organization – a platform for digital transformation that offers effective integration across PLM, ERP, your configurator, and any other supply chain solutions you have.

On the sales side, you’re going to need a robust configure/price/quote solution that’s going to automate those processes. And that needs to be integrated effectively with your PLM solution so you can ensure that the quotes generated, and the products that are available, align with real products that your design team has put together. And that information also needs to be integrated with your supply chain solutions and ERP to ensure that you can effectively plan and forecast demand to ensure that you have the right materials to build the various different configuration.

You are taking a holistic approach to product configuration across your organization, as opposed to just automating your quoting process, and as opposed to just building standard configurations into your products and your CAD and PLM systems. Approaching it from a delivery standpoint, these things all need to be working together and connected in a secure platform.

MC: What role does data play in optimized product configuration strategy?

NC: Everything is about data. Having data related to the costs of materials is going to be reflected in your pricing for products. Having data related to your supply chain and manufacturing resources is going to impact your delivery times and the promises you’re making to your customers.

It speaks to having that platform in-between, a platform that shares data across one single instance, where you don’t have siloed, separated and conflicting data.

In the product design phase, data is hugely important for informing R&D and the new products you’re going to develop and launch.

Data is the core of everything you’re doing, particularly in Industry 4.0, where it’s all about connectivity and the ability to leverage AI and machine learning, and about integrating unstructured data, and about even utilizing social cues that are going to impact demand planning and product development.

Software selection and implementation processes often present challenges of their own. To steer you around trouble and help you drive success, Ultra’s experts compiled a list of pain points and solutions to be aware of as you embark on this journey.

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