Tailor-made to requirements and the end product individually manufactured – these aspects make customers’ hearts beat faster. What used to mean an explicit and expensive order can now be put together online by many providers with just a few clicks.
When buying a new fridge or configuring a new car, the options grow exponentially with every click. But what is behind this input mask?

A look into the world of variant management and its impact on Product Lifecycle Management (PLM).

Benefits of variant management in PLM

  • Competitive advantages through product improvements based on modules and variants
  • Configurable product structures and selection catalogs
  • Transparent and consistent approach to managing large volumes of data

Understanding modular systems

Successful companies pool an incredible amount of expertise for their products. However, the perspectives on the product often differ enormously across departmental boundaries. Sales compiles its offer in a modular way in a spreadsheet, while Development then works through the individual orders in a linear fashion. Synergies with engineering services that have already been provided are used at most by the “save as” function. If this linear way of thinking is anchored in product development, then it is also ensured that downstream processes such as procurement and production process each parts list (Bill of Material – BOM) anew. This results in comparatively high costs – costs that are hardly questioned as long as the margin is sometimes more or sometimes less suitable.

But what happens when a product is rethought? The design no longer focuses on the product as a whole; instead, the individual modules float in space like in an exploded drawing. After a selection, these modules fit together perfectly and result in a finished product.

  • A system is more than the sum of its parts.

This view can be achieved if the design team manages to break the product down into modules of a coherent size rather than into a thousand individual parts. These modules fulfill special functions and requirements, and are also easily interchangeable with other modules via defined interfaces. The overall product becomes a system, individual modules have a size that makes changes and improvements manageable. The overall product is ultimately created through the interaction of the individual modules.

Establishing a mindset in engineering

For a product to benefit from modules and variance, it is essential to anchor this way of thinking in engineering. Products improve, which can lead to decisive competitive advantages for companies.

Development and design can be seen as the central pivotal point that determines how a product is perceived in all of the company’s processes. If, for example, a fastening is designed and constructed from scratch every time, it is almost impossible to optimize it for assembly. Minor deviations in the design will always lead to problems during assembly. Sales will also only benefit if certain sizes of this fastening are defined in the engineering. Once sizes 50, 80 and 100 have been established, sales can go to market with them. It is important that the customer is not offered any intermediate sizes, as all processes in the company would have to be re-examined for special production.

The question will arise as to where to start in engineering to describe a product in modular terms, because “engineering” is a huge area.

Product Lifecycle Management is dedicated to the task of describing a product over its entire lifecycle, which is why it has the greatest impact on all other domains. To begin with, it is of central importance to define an engineering BOM (eBOM) that is structured in modules, that understands which criteria activate which modules and ultimately also specifies to all other systems how the modular product is structured.

PLM software, what it can and cannot do

In order to operate PLM sensibly, software solutions have become established that support companies in managing huge amounts of data. When implementing PLM, the product and company processes are selected from a wide range of standard functionalities. There are also various functionalities for variant management that allow a configurable product structure and a selection catalog to be defined.

  • The software supports the way we work. Optimizing working methods is the company’s duty.

Experience shows that it is essential to pay attention to special aspects when introducing variant management in PLM:

  • Modules and architecture: define module sizes and interfaces, rethink product structure, create objects in the PLM system
  • Options: Define selection options, link with modules, create dependencies among the selection options
  • Configurations: Establish derivation of a 100% parts list
  • Interfaces: Integrate ERP, CPQ and other systems into the overall process, determine which information is stored by which system

In the end, many small software cogs have to mesh together. The system will not decide whether the chosen approach suits the company and product; this decision must be made by different experts from IT and business.

With strategy to variant management

Variant management is definitely a discipline that is based on many functions in PLM. Principles such as parts, document or change management should already be clarified so that further decisions for variant management have a basis.

Due to the many aspects that make up successful variant management, it will not be possible to convert the PLM system in the middle of operations and start working with variant management the next day. A software project with the involvement of the right people from the business, the right advice and an appropriate timeframe usually leads to successful implementation.

The first step is to draw up a concept of how variant management fits into the existing corporate landscape. The concept can be taken to the next stage once it has been validated by IT in terms of feasibility and by the business in terms of future working methods. With the right advice at your side, you can ensure during the concept phase that the software architecture used is state-of-the-art and sustainable.

In order to minimize project risks in terms of frontloading, piloting is the sensible next step in most cases. IT is responsible for configuring test systems for variant management. Here too, a software partner usually provides support with the necessary expertise and additional capacity. This makes it possible to examine whether and where there are still gaps in the developed concept. Possible problems can then be addressed in an iterative and agile manner. It is essential to use a real product from the company for the sample data, as this is the only way to take all of the specific features into account.

Many decisions have to be made during the final implementation for the company, which has a major impact on the daily work of many employees. Having a software integration partner at your side helps you to identify critical points and stay on the right track when making decisions. References from other projects provide important support for setting up a system in the best possible way.

In order to increase competitiveness in the long term with variant management, the project must be accompanied by organizational change management, as a changeover is always accompanied by the introduction and modification of processes. Employees need to be trained and internalize the new approach.

If the points described are successfully accomplished, nothing stands in the way of taking a forward-looking step with a modular product understanding.

Guidelines for successful variant management


Establish basic PLM functionalities as a prerequisite in the company.

  1. Putting together the right team from IT and business.
  2. Create a concept for integration into the existing corporate landscape.
  3. Piloting on test systems.
  4. Realization
  5. Train employees and ensure a high level of user acceptance.

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