Advanced PLE Comes to the Automotive Industry
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Advanced Product Line Engineering Comes to the Automotive Industry

Greetings from Dr. Paul Clements:

It would be hard to describe the front lines of product line engineering (PLE) these days without having the automotive industry come to mind. And so for this installment of “From the PLE Frontline”, I would like to share with you how I see PLE and automotive engineering driving each other to new heights of capability and improvement.

First, this newsletter was based on an article that I created for John Day's Automotive Electronics magazine. For the original article, see: Advanced Product Line Engineering Puts the Auto Industry in Overdrive.

Automotive Engineering: Complexity at the Extreme

Automotive engineering has never had so much complexity to deal with. Producing millions of vehicles per year, each one comprising thousands of parts and potentially different from the one just before it on the assembly line, is a feat unmatched in manufacturing.
These are some of the largest product lines on the planet, in terms of raw product count as well as product diversity.

On top of this daunting scale comes a slew of next generation features that require the seamless inter-operation of formerly-standalone subsystems, and that promise more autonomous operation and higher-level user interactions. Today’s vehicles must be responsive to the driver’s slightest of intentions while providing the highest levels of safety and reliability under the most extreme conditions. To meet this challenge, manufacturers have turned to increasingly sophisticated software and electronics, adding yet another layer of complexity as well as the opportunity for expensive and image-bruising defects and recalls.

From the perspective of the PLE field, having earned its wings in software, consumer electronics, telecomm, and other industries, automotive manufacturing has provided an invaluable opportunity to further expand its horizons. Product lines with millions of products, each one comprising hundreds of complex interacting subsystems, and literally astronomical feature combinations… To PLE evangelists like those of us at BigLever, it doesn’t get any better than that. The opportunities for game-changing improvements have proven to be enormous in scope and number.

PLE Evolves From its Software-only Roots

As long-time followers of this newsletter know, PLE has over the last decade or more matured dramatically beyond its software-only roots. Software is now just one kind of engineering asset that can be part of the equation (or not, if it doesn’t play a role in the products), along with things like requirements, design models, tests, documentation, user manuals, engineering plans, and much more.

It’s a good thing, too, because some auto companies don’t vary their software from vehicle to vehicle — there simply isn’t enough time on the assembly line to load up unique software onto every chip of every vehicle. Instead, every vehicle gets the same software load, and they use calibration parameters, which can be loaded in time, to turn features on or off.

There is now industrial-strength reliable automation — Gears — that can turn descriptions of products into, well, products by configuring those assets consistently and uniformly to support each product being built. The concept of a feature (a characteristic that distinguishes products from each other) has assumed its place as the way to describe variation. Feature-based PLE is now a proven approach for broadly managing variation challenges across the lifecycle. [Note: Click on the image for an expanded view.]

Automotive Delivers the Ultimate PLE Challenge

Here comes automotive manufacturing to deliver the ultimate complexity challenge — a challenge that feature-based PLE is uniquely equipped to handle. Some of the most relevant aspects of automotive manufacturing that I see driving PLE to new innovations include:

Lifecycle-wide integration. 

A large automotive company will have made tooling choices for each of its engineering artifacts. Perhaps requirements are managed in DOORS, design models in MagicDraw, tests in Quality Manager, PLM data in Innovator, the owner’s manual in Flare, calibration parameter catalogs in Excel spreadsheets, wiring harnesses in Capital, and so forth.

To produce the instantiations for individual vehicles, the PLE tooling has to work with each of these tools and preserve the traceability that exists among the artifacts stored in them. Automotive engineering is driving PLE tools to substantially increase the size of the engineering ecosystem with which they must seamlessly integrate. Gears has a rich and growing set of integrations available to bridge to tools like these.


Comprehensive constraint capture and enforcement.  

With thousands of features and feature flavors to choose from, it’s critical to have a reliable way to encode and capture all of the knowledge about illegal feature combinations, knowledge that by and large resides in subsystem engineers’ heads. Some of it is obvious — no sunroof for a convertible, please — but much of it is esoteric, detailed, and highly specialized. The PLE tooling has to be able to capture and represent these constraints in an intuitive manner, as well as help document why the constraints are true. Then, it needs to enforce them.

Making feature choices for a full vehicle may involve many hundreds of selections, and the PLE automation needs to guide vehicle engineers through the process every step of the way, to prevent any vehicle from being defined and sent to manufacturing that violates any of the constraints. Gears has a powerful array of feature, production line, and composition assertions that capture and enforce constraints anywhere needed — key capabilities that are highly effective for managing the complexities of automotive feature combinations.

Support for a product line of product lines (of product lines of…).  

Features are designed and provided by dozens of different groups. The tooling needs to support the seamless integration of all of their feature models to build a coherent, consistent vehicle. Features in turn need to be supported by technology packages: Choosing a flavor of a park assist feature requires choosing a specific combination of sensors to feed it. Technology choices in turn need to be realized by specific parts, captured in a Bill of Materials. The PLE tooling needs to support knitting together all of the choices that a vehicle comprises, laterally across the organization as well as vertically down through layers of realization specificity. Here is where the hierarchical production line capability of Gears comes into play.

Options that remain optional right up to manufacturing.

In most PLE realms, products are defined with all choices resolved. In automotive, the notion of a product family tree comes into play. Vehicles near the top (representing, say, the platform level) have some choices bound but many left open, whereas vehicles near the bottom (for, say, a specific brand, model, sales region, and trim level) have most of their choices picked, but still not all. Options are left open for customers to order, which means that choices need to remain unbound right up until manufacture. Again, the PLE tools have to support this capability, and Gears does with its multi-stage configuration capability. 

Option bundles.

Options are desirable, but can easily become too much of a good thing. The combinatorics of even a small number of unbound choices can swamp the company's manufacturing capability. Variant and complexity management, sometimes in the form of defining option packages and assigning them sales codes, is essential and the PLE tooling must be able to let product line managers define, analyze, and manage those bundles. Gears also provides this important capability.

PLE Gives Automotive a Powerful Paradigm Shift

Next generation PLE automation with Gears is already in use in the automotive industry, and I spend a great deal of my time helping to roll it out further and faster. PLE is giving automotive engineering a powerful paradigm shift. Instead of deriving features from a parts list, as has been the mental model in many auto companies, PLE is allowing vehicle engineers to start the design process by considering features first and deriving implementation and realization decisions from those. (Remember those calibration parameters I mentioned earlier? With feature-based automation, we’re deriving their values automatically, looking to save the industry millions of dollars annually in labor and error reduction.)  

Features drive parts, not the other way around. This gives everyone in the enterprise a common language, empowers customer-first thinking, and streamlines the systems engineering and manufacturing process. 

In short, automotive engineering is driving product line engineering to produce new, innovative, higher-capability solutions. In return, PLE is helping the automotive industry bring powerful new automation to bear in the design and manufacture of vehicles to shorten engineering lead times, reduce defects, and slash costs.

Each field is changing the other, and both are worlds better for it. Witnessing, and helping, this evolution is one of the most exciting parts of my job.

Best Regards,
Dr. Paul Clements
BigLever Software Vice President of Customer Success

About this Newsletter

As BigLever Software's Vice President of Customer Success, Dr. Paul Clements helps BigLever customers understand and apply the latest product line engineering (PLE) approaches, create optimized deployment plans, and establish successful ongoing PLE practices.

In this From the PLE Frontline newsletter issue, Dr. Clements shares his insights, observations, and important lessons learned from interactions and collaboration with customers.

We appreciate your interest and welcome your feedback regarding your organization's PLE challenges and issues.

PLE in Automotive Design & Production Magazine

A recent article featured in Automotive Design & Production Magazine explores the latest innovations in PLE, with a well-constructed view into the essential role that featured-based approaches play in these innovations.

Author Lawrence Gould offers valuable insights into the “variation problem” and how PLE effectively addresses these complexities. This article spotlights the importance of the continued convergence of PLE and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) technologies, with an overview of the integrated PLE/PLM capabilities delivered by the Aras Innovator/BigLever Gears Bridge solution made available by BigLever earlier this year.

>> See Article: Managing Product Lines by Focusing on Features.

General Motors Case Study

At this year’s Software Product Line Conference (SPLC 2015), General Motors presented a case study addressing the latest PLE advances in the automotive arena. Co-authored by Len Wozniak of General Motors and Dr. Paul Clements, the case study uses the vehicle product line at General Motors to illustrate and ground the journey through automotive PLE.

This case study explores the complexities endemic to the automotive domain and how these complexities inform and constrain the PLE approach, in terms of the technical capabilities and organizational processes required to successfully manage this level of complexity.

Key issues addressed include the need for efficient manufacturing, complexity management, concurrent development streams, globally distributed engineering and production, a hierarchical product family tree, multi-level variation binding, constraint management, and a highly robust and integrated PLE tooling environment.

The PLE paradigm supporting these implications brings about a number of opportunities for analysis and automation that provide efficiencies of production previously unattainable. The case study focuses on one example in depth: The management and automated generation of the many thousands of calibration parameters that determine vehicle specific software behavior.

>> See Case Study: How Automotive Engineering Is Taking Product Line Engineering to the Extreme

Mechanical Product Lifecycle Management Meets Product Line Engineering

Dr. Charles Krueger, BigLever CEO, presented a systems engineering paper at SPLC 2015 addressing the integration of PLM and PLE technologies, which provides insight into the extension of the PLE field beyond its original focus on source code, to a more holistic perspective of the engineering lifecycle. 

Dr. Krueger’s paper spotlights how the engineering complexity of PLM — or more specifically, mechanical product families with embedded software — has increased to a threshold where it is intractable for mechanical and software product line engineering to remain disjointed.

The paper explores the convergence of mechanical, systems and software PLE and the key obstacles that have slowed this convergence, including a conceptual misalignment among the traditionally distinct disciplines, as well as the differences between the physics of mechanical and software systems. 

This paper also provides a view into the Innovator/Gears Bridge, as an example of a recent PLE/PLM integration which serves to illustrate key concepts.

>> See Paper: Mechanical Product Lifecycle Management Meets Product Line Engineering

PLE in the Aerospace and Defense Sector

In addition to automotive, PLE is experiencing rapid growth in a spectrum of other industry sectors, such as aerospace and defense. 

Lockheed Martin presented a case study at SPLC 2015 regarding the extraordinary levels of cost avoidance the company has achieved through the use of next generation PLE approaches for the creation and ongoing evolution of the AEGIS Weapon System product line. 

This case study, co-authored by Susan Gregg and Rick Scharadin of Lockheed Martin and Dr. Paul Clements, provides a comprehensive overview of how, in the AEGIS Weapon System product line, the cost avoidance per product does not stay the same but grows over time, in a superlinear fashion, as more and more products and shared assets are added to the product family. 

>> See Case Study: The More You Do, the More You Save The Superlinear Cost Avoidance Effect of Systems Product Line Engineering

About BigLever Software

BigLever Software, Inc.™ is the leading provider of systems and software product line engineering solutions. BigLever's patented Gears™ solution enables organizations to reduce development costs and bring new product line features and products to market faster, enabling businesses to more reliably target and hit strategic market windows. For more information, visit

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