Organizations often struggle to manage variations in their product line (such as auto manufacturers and companies that sell software in multiple versions) as decisions spread beyond engineering into the business side. So Big Lever Software, one of the pioneers of product-line-management software, has released Gears 7.2 with the ability to group projects by family tree.

CEO Charles Krueger explained: “General Motors does product-line engineering on a mega-scale. Last year it produced 9 million vehicles, which translates to a car coming off a production line every three seconds, 24×7.”

To do this, he said, “You need everyone marching to product-line variants. GM calls it the bill of features. It’s the common language people use to talk about the product line.”

Using the notion of a family tree, features are grouped to form product variations. Using the automotive example, the top level would be the platform (in this case, the chassis). There usually are different chassis for sedans, trucks and subcompacts. From the platform follows the program, which is the sub-family of vehicles that can be built on a particular chassis. Regional programs take such things as climate and cultural preference into account, as features may vary slightly due to these factors, Krueger said.

“A car is built out of brakes, infotainment systems, steering systems, on and on for about 300 different feature choices,” he said. “It’s the flavor of braking, steering and infotainment that the company can use to create profiles of these vehicles.”

Those choices usually start at the next level—the trim level—which usually comes in base, standard and luxury variants. Beyond that comes the vehicle instance, with all the features required for one particular vehicle. That’s how you end up with an LE with a leather interior, sunroof, power passenger side seats, navigation system, antilock brakes, and whatever other features the customer might request.

For software companies (which often release their products in free, professional and enterprise versions), advancing the features in the correct product set and consolidating input from business decision-makers and marketing people can be a challenge.

“Commercial organizations produce millions of product instances per year,” Krueger said. “This follows the systems-of-systems approach you hear about in engineering.” The product family tree mirrors this engineering approach by taking individual groups and pooling them to create more complex groups.

About David Rubinstein

David Rubinstein is editor-in-chief of SD Times.