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Automotive engineering has never been more complex. Producing millions of vehicles per year, each one comprising thousands of parts and features, is unmatched in manufacturing.

Automotive manufacturers must also incorporate an array of next-generation features that require seamless interoperation of formerly standalone subsystems to enable more autonomous operation and higher-level user interactions. Today’s vehicles must respond to the driver’s slightest intentions while providing safety and reliability in the most extreme conditions. To meet this challenge, manufacturers are installing increasingly sophisticated software and electronics, adding complexity that increases the potential for costly defects and recalls.

To manage this variation, many automotive companies are using feature-based product line engineering (PLE) software. This approach enables companies to establish a single source of feature truth for an entire product family – eliminating multiple feature management mechanisms across tools, processes, and functions. It breaks down organizational silos and improves cross-functional communication, collaboration, and cohesion.

Instead of the traditional practice of deriving features from a parts list and bill-of-materials (BoM), feature-based PLE allows manufacturers to start the design process by choosing features first to determine implementation. Companies select a bill-of-features to determine materials – mechanical, electrical, wiring, software, calibrations – rather than a BoM to determine features.

With feature-based PLE, companies create a feature catalog for the product line and a superset of digital assets from all tools across the engineering and operations life cycle. Assets are assembled and configured based on the selected features to automatically produce each product. It allows organizations to plan, design, engineer, maintain, and evolve a product line portfolio through each stage of the life cycle with far more efficiency.

Managing unbound options

In many industries, products are defined with all choices resolved. In automotive, a product family tree comes into play, allowing manufacturers to organize product groupings. Vehicles near the top of the family tree (the platform level) are partially bound – some feature decisions have been made, yet customers still have some options to select. Vehicles near the bottom (a specific brand, model, sales region) have most of their options chosen. When options are left open for customers to select, choices must remain unbound right until manufacture. Feature-based PLE can support a multi-stage configuration capability, enabling feature decisions to be incrementally staged throughout a product family tree.

While options are desirable, even a few unbound choices can swamp a company’s manufacturing capability. Variant and complexity management, such as defining option bundles and assigning them sales codes, is essential. Feature-based PLE allows product line managers to more easily define, analyze, and manage those bundles.

PLE meets PLM

Product lifecycle management (PLM) has long been automotive’s mainstay engineering paradigm – managing the life cycle of a product from inception, through engineering design and manufacture, to service and retirement. However, automotive companies make millions of similar-yet-distinct products. PLM isn’t fully equipped to manage that variation, but feature-based PLE is.

When PLE integrates with PLM – and companies can use a bill-of-features rather than a BoM – complexity declines dramatically. The bill-of-features becomes the specification for defining feature content and producing a product in the product line, rendered in terms of specific features from the feature catalog.

This integration of PLE and PLM brings major improvements in cross-functional communication and cohesion and achieves new levels of efficiency in the production, delivery, maintenance, and evolution of a product line.

Automotive companies at the forefront of the industry are working to merge PLE with PLM. The goal is to use an individual vehicle’s features to automatically produce software, calibration parameters, electrical architecture, wiring harness diagram, bill-of-materials, test cases, owner’s manual, and more – all specific to that vehicle. This promises to save hundreds of millions of dollars annually, reduce defects, and shorten time to market.

BigLever Software

About the author: Cathy Martin is a vice president at BigLever Software. She can be reached at