Tag Archive for: Product Line Engineering

This article is Part 2 of a two-part series by our friends at BigLever Software.

Part 1 provided an introduction to Feature-based Product Line Engineering (PLE) and the “PLE factory” – which is a foundational concept in the new PLE ISO standards under development, as well as the underpinning of BigLever’s PLE approach.

As a reminder, PLE is an innovative engineering practice that 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.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the underlying concepts central to Feature-based PLE — the automated production line approach enabled by PLE — and the supporting technology foundation.

The PLE Automated Production Line

As discussed in Part 1, the underpinning of PLE is the PLE factory, which is much like a typical manufacturing factory except that it operates on digital assets rather than physical parts.

PLE allows an organization to create a “superset” supply chain of digital assets that can be shared across the entire product line. These digital assets are equipped with all the feature options offered in the product line.

Figure 1 provides an extended view of the PLE factory and how it enables the establishment of an automated production line that assembles and configures the shared digital assets based on the features that are selected for each product variation – enabling a fully unified, automated approach.

Figure 1: The PLE automated production line

Feature-based PLE enforces consistent treatment of all shared assets under the automated production line infrastructure, so that a full set of demonstrably consistent supporting artifacts can be systematically generated for each product.

Assets are designed in Gears, BigLever’s industry-standard PLE solution, with built-in variation points. Each variation point describes a piece of content in the shared asset whose participation in any product depends on a certain feature, or combination of features, being chosen.

When a product is built, the configurator uses the product’s feature-based description to “exercise” these variation points (that is, configure the asset to meet the needs of the product.)

Variation point mechanisms comprise: including or omitting the artifact; choosing one variant of the artifact (from an available set) to use in the product; or making fine-grained choices within an artifact such as including or omitting a requirement, section in a document or model element or block of code.

Under this shared-asset-with-variation-points paradigm, the artifacts that engineers create and maintain for the product line are supersets: Each has the content necessary to support any product in the product line. The configurator’s job may be seen as exercising the variation points to filter away content until only that needed for the product being built is left.

Variation points are expressed in terms of features, not products. The configurator does its work by comparing feature-based expressions that define a variation point to the feature choices that define a product.

Hence, the assets are configured to support feature selections; the supersets become product-agnostic. Among other benefits, this makes adding a new product to the portfolio exceptionally easy.

Figure 2 provides a closer look at the classic engineering V-model, recast for product line engineering.

Figure 2: Engineering V-model and PLE

Each phase across the lifecycle is augmented by the addition of variation points (indicated by the gear symbol) to the artifacts native to that phase.

A Bill-of-Features for a product, as shown at the top of Figure 1, corresponds to the feature selections within the feature profiles for that product. The yellow arrows illustrate that all of the variation points in all of the artifacts across the full lifecycle are synchronously and consistently configured according to the single consolidated collection of feature selections in the Bill-of-Features.

Gears and the PLE Ecosystem

As the technology foundation for the PLE factory, Gears is the all-in-one tool used to establish, organize, and operate an automated production line. More specifically, Gears provides the means to:

  • Create and maintain the production line
  • Build and maintain the feature catalog and Bills-of-Features for the production line
  • Attach shared assets to the production line
  • Edit shared assets to define variation points and create instructions to Gears for how to exercise them
  • Configure the shared assets to produce product-specific instances based on a Bill-of-Features

In a PLE context, requirements engineers work on requirements, software engineers work on software, test engineers build test cases, assembly engineers build bills of materials and parts lists, tech writers create user manuals, build engineers craft build scripts, and so forth. While these activities now happen in the context of the entire product line rather than individual products, the individual engineer’s job, by and large, remains the same.

However, under the PLE factory approach, we need the requirements engineers, software engineers, test engineers, and the rest to put variation points into their artifacts – and we want that process to be assisted and facilitated by automation that will eventually exercise those variation points. This means we need a way to support the specification and selection of variation in assets and artifacts from across the entire lifecycle. This is enabled via the PLE Ecosystem of tools and Gears Bridge integrations with those tools.

The PLE Ecosystem was established to allow engineers to continue to work in the technology and tool environments to which they are accustomed, while making those environments “product line aware”.

Tools in the PLE Ecosystem may be commercially available, open source, customized, integrated or proprietary. This PLE Ecosystem is important for ensuring that these tools work effectively with Gears for a consistent, compatible, fully unified PLE solution across all enterprise lifecycle phases.

Gears interfaces with the tools in the PLE Ecosystem via integration bridges. Built on the PLE Bridge API, Gears Bridge solutions make tools product line aware by incorporating standardized variation point mechanisms and enabling the execution of PLE operations – such as product configuration, variation point editing and variation impact analysis – from within the tools.

Figure 3 illustrates Gears Bridge integrations using examples of shared asset types and tools.

Figure 3: Bridge integrations via the PLE Bridge API

The PLE Ecosystem includes tools from third-party tool providers such as IBM Rational, Aras, PTC, No Magic, Sparx, Microsoft, Perforce, MadCap, Open Source and more.

The PLE Bridge API also enables organizations to create bridges for connecting with additional engineering tools that are used in their tooling environment. The PLE Ecosystem continues to grow as BigLever, our partners, and our customers add new integrations and strengthen the capabilities of existing ones.

Engineering Gains Translate to Business Value

In this article series, we have explored how Feature-based PLE is not a “boutique” hand-crafted approach, but is proven, robust, and industrial-strength — centered around the factory paradigm and backed up by industrial-scale commercially available tooling.

We see this leading-edge approach being used by forward-thinking organizations to achieve dramatic reductions in the overall engineering effort required to design, produce, deliver and evolve their product lines. This, in turn, translates to major cost savings.

For example, Lockheed Martin reports an average of $47 million in annual cost avoidance using Feature-based PLE to produce the AEGIS Weapon System product line for the U.S. Navy.1 And another global aerospace defense company accumulated more than $746 million in cost avoidance based on its PLE approach for the production of the U.S. Army’s Live Training Transformation product line.2

These engineering efficiency gains and cost savings translate to major strategic business value for organizations employing Feature-based PLE — including order-of-magnitude improvements in time-to-market and product quality, increased product line scalability, and ultimately, a greater competitive advantage.

Note: Is your company interested in a BigLever and Jama Software integration? Let us know! We’re exploring the creation of a new Gears Bridge solution for Jama and looking for early adopters. Contact BigLever at [email protected].

[1]  Product Line Engineering on the Right Side of the “V” by Susan P. Gregg, Denise M. Albert, and Paul Clements, Proceedings of the 21st International Systems and Software Product Line Conference (SPLC 2017), Sevilla, Spain. September 2017.

[2]  “Training and Simulation,” https://gdmissionsystems.com/c4isr/training-simulation/.

This is the first of a two-part series of guests 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.