Innovation Trends

Feature-Based Product Line Engineering: Translating Engineering Gains into Strategic Business Value

This is a guest post about Product Line Engineering (PLE) from our friends at BigLever Software

PLE is the engineering of a product line portfolio using a shared set of engineering assets, a managed set of features and an automated means of production. By “engineer,” we mean all of the activities involved in planning, producing, delivering, sustaining and retiring products.

PLE provides a way to take full and ongoing advantage of the commonality shared across a product family, while efficiently and systematically managing the variation or differences.

Managing a portfolio as a single entity with variation, as opposed to a multitude of separate products, brings enormous efficiencies in the development, production, maintenance and evolution of a product line portfolio.

The engineering improvements enabled by PLE are resulting in dramatic reductions in engineering cost and time-to-market, and order-of-magnitude improvements in productivity, product line scalability and product quality.

As PLE has evolved into an industrial-strength engineering discipline, modern state-of-the-art approaches — known as “Feature-based” PLE — have emerged to enable the industry’s most notable success stories. Feature-based PLE has been acknowledged as one of the foremost areas of innovation within the systems engineering field by INCOSE (International Council on Systems Engineering).

INCOSE is leading the development of new ISO standards for Feature-based PLE, in an effort to clearly delineate a disciplined, structured set of standards that can be applied to help engineering organizations adopt and successfully implement these proven approaches. BigLever Software is working in conjunction with INCOSE to support and facilitate this standards development.

This two-part article series explores the underlying concepts central to Feature-based PLE and illustrates how it provides a unified, automated approach.

In this article, Part 1, we provide a view into the “Feature-based PLE factory,” which is a foundational concept in the new ISO standards under development, as well as the underpinning of BigLever’s PLE approach.

And, we will also address why this innovative engineering paradigm is being adopted by a growing number of forward-thinking organizations across a spectrum of industries such as automotive, defense, aerospace, aviation, industrial systems and beyond.

The Product Line Engineering Factory

The underpinning of Feature-based PLE is the creation of a “PLE factory.” Briefly, a PLE factory comprises:

  • Collection of soft assets (that is, assets that can be represented digitally) shared across all the products in a product line
  • Set of specifications that define the products, in terms of the features that each contains
  • Product configurator that applies a specification to the digital assets in order to produce each product in the portfolio.

Manufacturers have long used analogous engineering techniques to create a line of similar products using a common factory that assembles and configures parts designed to be reused across the varying products in the product line.

For example, automotive manufacturers can create thousands of unique variations of one car model using a single pool of parts carefully designed to be configurable, with factories specifically designed to configure and assemble those parts. Modern PLE approaches, as specified in the new ISO standards, are known as Feature-based PLE because the factory is established and operated based on a single set of defined product features, which are offered by the entire product line.

BigLever’s Gears PLE Lifecycle Framework provides the technology foundation for the Feature-based PLE factory. Organizations use the Gears configurator as the factory’s automation component; the parts are the shared assets in the factory’s supply chain. A statement of the properties desired in the end product tells the configurator how to configure the assets. Figure 1 illustrates.

Figure 1: Feature-based PLE seen as a factory

The factory’s supply chain is shown on the left, in the form of shared assets that are configurable because they include variation points that are expressed in terms of the features available in each of the products. A product specification at the top (provided by Product Line Management) tells the configurator how to configure the assets coming in from the left, based on the features selected for a specific product. The resulting product, assembled from the configured assets, emerges on the right. This enables the rapid production of any variant of the assets for any of the products in the portfolio. Once this production line capability is established, products are instantiated — derived from the shared assets as determined by feature selections — rather than manually created.

In this context, products can comprise any combination of software, systems in which software runs or non-software systems that have software-representable artifacts associated with them. Some of these artifacts support the engineering process, while others are delivered alongside the product itself.

Shared assets are the building blocks of the products in the product line and are specifically engineered to be shared across the product line. They are the digital artifacts associated with the engineering lifecycle of the product.

Shared assets can include, but are not limited to:

  • Requirements
  • Design specifications
  • Design models
  • Source code
  • Build files
  • Bills of materials
  • Test plans and test cases
  • User documentation
  • Manuals and installation guides
  • Project budgets
  • Schedules
  • Work plans
  • Product calibration and configuration files
  • Data models
  • Parts lists and more

A feature is a distinguishing characteristic of a product. Features are analogous to the choices made, for example, when buying a new car. They typically express the customer-visible diversity among the products in a product line. The concept of a feature allows a consistent abstraction to be employed when making choices from a whole product configuration all the way down to the deployment of software components within a low-level subsystem in the architecture.

In practice, stakeholders throughout the entire portfolio’s environment are fluent in the language of features: marketers sell features that customers buy; testers test features; parts are added to support features; software programmers write code to implement features; requirements engineers specify features; and so forth. All of these roles are able to communicate meaningfully in this lingua franca, as opposed to the arcane languages of each one’s discipline.

This transition to a Feature-based PLE factory approach allows organizations to break down operational silos across the enterprise and achieve new levels of efficiency, interoperability and alignment among all aspects of planning, designing, delivering, maintaining and evolving a product line portfolio. 

Why Feature-based PLE – Now?

Manufacturers are being pushed to the edge of their capability by the exponentially growing complexity of today’s products and how they are engineered. Engineering teams are increasingly consumed by the mundane tasks of managing this complexity. Organizations face myriad challenges in finding new ways to tame this mounting complexity, and manage increasing product diversity, in order to bring products to market rapidly and efficiently, while still achieving the highest levels of safety and reliability.

This creates an extraordinary need and opportunity for dramatic improvements in the way complex product lines are engineered, delivered and evolved. Traditional product-centric approaches — where individual products within a product line are designed, produced and maintained separately — are simply no longer viable. Feature-based PLE has emerged as a proven, robust and industrial-strength solution for addressing this problem.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we will explore in greater detail how the PLE factory works and the supporting PLE ecosystem of tool providers. We’ll also take a closer look at how the engineering efficiency gains and cost savings delivered by PLE translate to strategic business value including order-of-magnitude improvements in time-to-market, product line scalability, product quality and, ultimately, greater competitive advantage. 

In the meantime, gain some sharp insights into managing the growing complexity of systems, organizations, processes and supply chains with our resource, “Systems Engineering and Development.