It’s becoming increasingly important for companies to bring to market an ever-growing variety of highly sophisticated new products and product features. Companies must rapidly build and deliver a more diverse product line that can be customized to meet market demand, differentiated from competitive offerings, and easily augmented and evolved. These trends impact companies in numerous ways — one of the most significant is the mounting engineering complexity that underpins most of today’s manufactured products..
Think of your smartphone, your auto or any of the other wired devices that you own. Each of those machines is packed with an array of complex technology including embedded software, electrical and mechanical components – all of which have to be seamlessly integrated. When you start to imagine the systems that involve that degree of complexity, it becomes immediately apparent that designing, producing, and maintaining each product in a one-off fashion using traditional approaches is simply too inefficient, costly and time-consuming..
So, in a world replete with such highly complex products, how does an engineering team even begin creating a competitive product line? Well, one of the more effective solutions is product line engineering (PLE).
What Is PLE?
Product line engineering has been around since the early 1990s. In essence, PLE is the idea that if a suite of similar products, with variations in features and functions, is to be developed (a product line) an overall architecture for that product line should be created to manage the product family as a whole – in a way that maximizes the sharing of engineering assets across the product variants.
Product line architecture is a complex strategy. PLE involves not just software, but also electrical and mechanical components, and myriad other engineering domains that govern a product’s design, production and use. Each of these must be mapped in the product line architecture. While the task of creating this product line architecture can seem monumental at first, the PLE approach can pay off down the road, making it easier and faster to produce and manage product variations and improvements year after year.
According to BigLever Software—provider of the PLE solution Gears—its new generation PLE approaches have “demonstrated improvements in [product] development time, costs, quality and engineering productivity” that vastly outstrip non-PLE engineering efforts.
A New Generation of PLE
2GPLE solutions work by automating product configurations based on product feature profiles. (Image Courtesy of Big Lever Software)
While PLE has been around for more than 25 years, over the last decade, a new evolution of PLE has emerged that’s yielding even better product development results. While early generation PLE approaches set the foundation. they did not provide the pragmatic methods and essential tools required to tame the extreme complexity of today’s technologically advanced product lines.
Now, a more factory-centric approach to PLE is making it possible for companies to create a single production system that uses features to automatically assemble and configure the asset needed to produce their product lines.. This new form of PLE is often referred to as second-generation product line engineering (2GPLE).
In the past, one of the biggest challenges for organizations building complex product lines is the difficulty of translating product definitions into a uniform language that could be used across organizational silos from product marketing and engineering to the manufacturing factory floor. With 2GPLE, a more concise structure is used to define the features and common assets that exist across the product line as well as across the lifecycle—such assets as the product requirements, design models, and software that will drive a product, or the types of quality assurance tests that will be required to validate a product. These assets are then assembled and configured based on feature profiles that determine the specific features for the product. With a full product line vocabulary in hand, engineers can easily make feature selections that dictate the design of a product, and then the PLE factory matches assets to meet those feature requirements and create a new member of a product line.
Who’s Using 2GPLE?
One of the most important case studies that demonstrates 2GPLE abilities happens to be its deployment in the development of the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) Aegis Combat System (ACS) by Lockheed Martin.
As it’s defined by the DOD, the ACS “is a centralized, automated, command-and-control and weapons control system that was designed as a total weapon system, from detection to kill.” Powered by a multi-phase radar array, the ACS is a naval weapons system that can search, track and guide munitions toward 100 enemy targets simultaneously.
Though the ACS’s abilities are prodigious, the complexity of design required to meet the project’s goals nearly outstripped the ability to execute on the ACS vision. Add to this the fact that the ACS would need to be compatible across an international fleet of ships, the scope of the ACS project demanded a 2GPLE solution.
An outline of the numerous systems tied into the ACS. (Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)
At the outset of the ACS development, Lockheed Martin had one idea in mind. Knowing that the ACS’s development would be a distinct challenge, it needed to reduce overall complexity by developing products once, and then deploying common ACS assets across a fleet. In the beginning, Lockheed separated the development of the ACS into two distinct systems. The first system contained all of the physical product line assets that would be common among ACS configurations. The second system contained all of the common source code that would control the ACS system across the fleet.
While Lockheed had created two robust architectures to contain two separate systems, it was difficult to create reliable product definitions between the two systems. To solve this problem, Lockheed turned to BigLever’s Gears Lifecycle Framework to unify both systems and make it possible to define integrated product definitions combining hardware and software.
With Gears in place, Lockheed’s engineers could feed in design requirements and use them to develop systems that could be rapidly tested and deployed. With this 2GPLE system in place, Lockheed’s engineering efforts were dramatically reduced, translating to lower system development costs. The development of the ACS system has become an even more potent unification of multiple weapons systems. With 2GPLE tools at its disposal, Lockheed can deliver software and systems upgrades to the ACS and respond to emerging threats in a way that was not possible before. Furthermore, BigLever’s Gears solution has also helped eliminate redundancies in systems development, cutting the cost of this undeniably valuable yet expensive system.
Today, the ACS has been deployed to deep-water vessels, littoral combat ships and even Coast Guard cutters. What’s more, the system has been introduced to several allied navies across the globe. Without a robust 2GPLE system girding the development of the ACS, deployment across such a large range of vessels and organizations would have been much more costly and time consuming. Supported by Lockheed’s adoption of 2GPLE practices, the ACS’s development and roll out has been a significant achievement for the DOD.
While the siloing of projects is common among companies, 2GPLE systems like BigLever Gears are playing an instrumental role in changing the culture among designers and institutions that develop some of the world’s most sophisticated and expensive products. That can only mean good things for the future of product development, providing a path forward for more powerful and reliable products.