Nieke Roos
29 September

Configuring, instead of re-engineering, complex high-tech solutions increases development efficiency, reduces errors and saves money. For this, constructing a stable link between configurable modules and customer-facing variations is paramount. Vanderlande and TNO’s ESI have developed an approach to overcome this configurability challenge.

Not so long ago, Vanderlande built its material handling systems as highly specific solutions tailored to the needs of each customer. Recently, however, the company has changed its course, moving away from such an engineer-to-order concept and switching to configure-to-order, where it creates a portfolio of pre-defined products that can be customized to fit a client’s wishes. This new approach increases development efficiency, reduces errors and saves money.

A successful configure-to-order approach requires a very close alignment between the product development and sales pipelines, even more so because it constitutes a major change of process. Sales should offer only configurations as supported by the development roadmap, while the development activities should create designs and decompositions that support the required configurability in customer solutions. “It’s a move from making what you sell to selling what you’ve made,” summarizes Ben Pronk, a system architect at TNO’s joint innovation center ESI.

Vanderlande Fastpick infographic
A typical warehouse automation solution consists of a variety of manual or automated workstations and storage areas connected by a transport system, all managed by a control application. Credit: Vanderlande

Pronk and his ESI colleague Alexandr Vasenev, a system architecting researcher, supported Vanderlande in creating a formal configuration model to bring together the stakeholders from development and sales. The project started at the beginning of last April and ran for three months. Its results are now being incorporated at the Veghel-headquartered material handling specialist. Tailored to the specific working environment, they can also be reused at other companies.

Set combinations

Vanderlande operates in various domains, including airport, warehouse and parcel automation. The project with ESI focused on the warehouse domain. There, a typical solution consists of a variety of manual or automated workstations and storage areas connected by a transport system, all managed by a control application.

“With ESI, we took one such workstation as an example,” says Sergey Libert, a system architect at Vanderlande. “In an engineer-to-order approach, to put it black and white, you develop the full layout and ergonomics from scratch for every project. With configure-to-order, you define a limited number of basic elements, from which a confined number of layouts can be constructed. This way, you can make a lot of variants but not everything you can think of – just the ones you want to sell.”

This baseline has been developed in a separate process, using requirements derived from market research. “We’ve created what we call platforms, several set combinations of hardware and software modules providing pre-defined functionalities that our research has shown to fit specific business areas,” explains Libert. “For a client, we pick the platform that best suits their purposes and then configure it to further align it with their wishes.”

“Of course, you can’t satisfy a customer only with what you have,” notes Fatih Erkan, who was involved in the ESI project as a system architect at Vanderlande. “That’s why we leave some room for tailoring – we’re selling at least 80 percent from the baseline; up to 20 percent can still be custom development work.”

Vanderlande Fastpick 01
The SysML model developed by Vanderlande and ESI captures all the configuration options of a warehouse solution – starting with the operator workstation. Credit: Vanderlande

SysML

The model developed by Vanderlande and ESI captures all the configuration options – starting with the operator workstation. “We organized weekly workshops to determine what information was already available within the company, which tools were being used and who the stakeholders were,” says ESI’s Vasenev, describing the initial project efforts. “In total, we had more than twenty meetings with product experts, salespeople and management to map the information landscape.”

The team found a bunch of information spread across different paper and digital documents. “A team of experts had already defined a standard solution for a workstation. They had done so in a number of Excel sheets describing the possible features and configurations,” illustrates Libert. “We took all the information and formalized it in a model for the workstation, linked to a higher-level model, all in SysML.”

“At the start of the project, we investigated different modeling languages, and SysML came out on top,” adds Erkan. “The choice was made easier because development at Vanderlande used it in their model-based systems engineering efforts as well, together with the Sparx Enterprise Architect tooling. So, rather than reinventing the wheel for a project of only three months, we picked the low-hanging fruit.”

“We realized that it would be very beneficial to link the configuration model to the development models,” argues ESI’s Pronk. “SysML makes it possible to define them in the same environment.” Libert: “It allows us to put the maintenance of the configuration model in the hands of the people who also develop the platforms.”

Two worlds

A proof of concept was created to show the configuration model’s value. Pronk: “We connected the model to an existing UI tool used within Vanderlande. This demonstrates that the generic interface works and that it’s feasible to supply the model data to a customer-facing environment.”

“We’re envisioning a GUI that sales can use to play around with configuration parameters, together with the customer,” outlines Libert. “In the back-end, the model maps the implementation functionality on configuration options, defining which parameters can be tuned and which variants can be selected. In the front-end, with the push of a button, the configuration result can be turned into input that can be used to engineer a solution.”

“On the customer-facing side, there’s going to be this sales tool. Under the hood, it uses the model, which is formally and unambiguously described in SysML,” recaps ESI’s Vasenev. “On the other side, there’s development, which also uses the model and elaborates it to create the systems. So, the model brings the two worlds together, with SysML simplifying the communication with sales and management, while at the same time, forming a solid basis for development.”

“Building the envisioned sales tool wasn’t part of the project; the goal of the collaboration with ESI was to create the configuration model,” Erkan points out. “The example operator workstation model is now in place and being used by our primary stakeholder to ‘sell’ it to his stakeholders in sales. They’ve started to look at it and we’ve learned that they’re finding it a big improvement compared to the Excel sheets they’re using now. Exporting the model to a tool they know well has been very instrumental in proving its value for sales, too.”

Vanderlande Innovation Center workstation 01
The operator workstation is a sweet spot in development. Many innovations start there. Credit: Vanderlande

Scaling up

There’s also still some homework to do, observes Libert. “We need to decide on the sales tool to use for the configuration. In the meantime, we need to make sure that our proof of concept remains top of mind. We’re using it in development, but we really need to break through that sales barrier.” Erkan: “It’s key to convince the business stakeholders, but it takes time to sell something to a salesperson.”

Another important item on the to-do list is scaling up. “The operator workstation is very much a sweet spot in development. Many innovations start there. That’s why we picked it,” says Erkan. “In the project with ESI, we’ve modeled three more stations. These configuration models are also in place but aren’t being used yet.”

As a material handling solution has many more constituent parts, the ultimate goal is an integrated configuration model of the entire system-of-systems. “There are spreadsheets on all system levels,” Erkan notes. “By formalizing those, a model can be constructed of the complete solution, with multiple levels of configurations connected to each other in a system-subsystem-like architecture.”

For Libert, that’s one of the key project findings: being able to create one big model from such a diverse set of modules and functionalities. “We have workstations, we have storage areas, we have conveyors. Despite their very different physical and functional characteristics, we can construct an overarching meta-model that can be used in a customer-facing environment. A meta-model, moreover, that’s language, tool and domain agnostic – it’s not bound to SysML or Sparx and it can be applied outside Vanderlande.”

Reusable

This paves the way for ESI to deploy the approach at other high-tech companies. Many have similar model-based systems engineering (MBSE) discussions with configuration as an important topic. Pronk: “We’ve only just finished the project, but I see a lot of potential for broad application in the high-tech industry.”

“It’s definitely reusable,” reckons Vasenev. “It’s actually built on knowledge gathered from ESI’s MBSE network. After interviewing partners like ASML and Canon Production Printing, as well as external companies on their best practices, we tailored the findings to the Vanderlande context, which sped up the integration into existing processes, tools and modeling approaches. And now, we can inject the results back into the network.”

This article was written in close collaboration with Vanderlande and ESI (TNO). Main picture credit: Vanderlande