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By Chris McAndrew, December 10, 2012
As an engineer, I can tell you that custom engineering is a challenge, even when working with other engineers who are adept at working through complex series of problems. Engineers are trained to work with strict formulas and restrictions, but when a non-technical sales team is added to the group and the complexities of mass production and consumer products are added to the mix, it can become difficult to communicate all the rules and details of the production process -- while still delivering on the business needs.
Rulestream is an ETO (engineer-to-order) software package from Siemens PLM Software, It is designed to capture rules and knowledge held by business and engineering experts, with the goal of automating decision processes. The software makes it easier to communicate details to sales teams. This then frees up experts to solve the next set of challenges by determining rules and best practices for new designs.
The core of Rulestream is a rules-execution engine that’s designed to automate rules-driven business processes. “Rules-driven” means you want the same standard process followed every time; in a sense, this is something that many CPG (consumer packaged goods) companies rely on to repeatedly deliver quality goods using mass production. The knowledge management system populates the rules into the engine.
Siemens PLM Software has found a way to integrate its ETO software into certain aspects of the CPG industry. The Rulestream software contains tools for capturing and then maintaining design and business rules, visualizing 3D models, creating charts, making custom UI (user interface) configurations. It does this through drag and drop, automating quotation and design processes, and integrating with CAD (computer-aided design) systems, databases, and office documents. All of these help turn any type of rules-driven business process into one that is automated and can be controlled by sales teams at CPG companies.
The CPG industry has hundreds of processes that fit the description of being based on rules. These rules may be handed down from, for instance, customers and retailers, who have specific requirements. Wal-Mart, for example, is notorious for enacting new initiatives on suppliers, whether it is sustainable packaging, RFID (radio frequency identification) scanning, or specific wording on the outsides of shipping boxes. If a CPG company cannot respond quickly enough and adhere to the rules, they risk losing shelf and aisle space through which to sell their products. Other examples include companies looking at new promotional items and ways to increase their in-store presence through endcaps (products placed at the ends of aisles), sidekicks (product displays jutting out from aisles), pallets, and custom POP (point of purchase) displays.
To learn more about how CPG companies work with Rulestream, I spoke with Rick Smith, director of ETO Solutions at Siemens PLM Software. Since the Rulestream product line was purchased by Siemens, the company has been exploring new industries to serve with this technology. I asked him about their expansion into the CPG industry, specifically its use in special packaging jobs and displays.
Q: There are plenty of rules-based systems for mass production, but
CPG is very different from contract manufacturing. Was getting into CPG a
forward-thinking thing for Siemens, or something you stumbled into?
A: Our company has industry-focused teams, including a team for CPG. Our CPG team was in discussion with several customers who were having a difficult time with their custom displays and special packaging. These customers usually had a little bit of automation from the sales end, but everything was manual on the back end. They identified that special packaging is a very similar class of problem to custom engineering, and therefore began introducing the Rulestream technology to these companies.
Q: You said there were a few enhancements and changes that needed to
be made to the existing engineer-to-order system to make it apply to the CPG
space and special packaging. Can you tell me about these; what you did do to
A: There were some. The first thing we needed was a lightweight, very rapid, 3D visual eye-on. We already had mature integrations to several CAD software products (such as NX, SolidWorks, Pro/Engineer, and AutoCAD) that allowed our customers to automate the generation of 3D models and associated drawings. However, driving CAD to produce 3D visualizations in an online to-order environment can be prohibitive from a performance perspective in certain cases. For instance, there are some special packaging cases that require a 3D visualization model to be generated automatically in just seconds.
To provide a means by which to rapidly generate 3D visualizations, we implemented a solution based on our JT format. JT is an open 3D file format produced by Siemens PLM Software, and it used extensively in the PLM domain for visualization, collaboration, and CAD interoperability. It is also an ISO specification that’s publically available. Siemens PLM Software offers 3D viewers for JT-format models, so we quickly extended Rulestream to allow both rule-based generation and viewing of 3D visualization models for special packaging.
The second piece was the end-user experience. We already had a highly configurable Web-based user interface, but it was missing some of the features important to CPG sales users. So we added enhancements to our step-by-step guided navigation and embedded help, along with branding capabilities; this allows the user interface to be styled to match that of the company’s Website or portal. We added those capabilities, and continue to expand the degree to which our user interface can be configured to meet specific needs of customers.
Q: If this is a branded solution, is it something that your customers
are letting their customers into; are they giving out quote packages where
others can log in to Rulestream?
A: It’s both. Some companies give access to only their inside sales team, others allow their distribution and sales channel into it. And others allow their customers in to configure and view their own custom designs.
Q: Most of the time when we’re designing and pitching POP displays,
end caps, and other custom trays, it’s a lot of “Hey, look at this other one
that we did; we can do something similar just with some changes and new
items.” Does Rulestream have a library to pull in past projects; is it
pick-and-choose, or is it something that an engineering-savvy person has put
A: Absolutely. It is possible to employ rules to help sales users perform intelligent queries against repositories of designs. This lets them find good candidates from existing displays, view their details and 3D images, and possibly select one of them as the new starting point. There is a lot of benefit to being able to combine this with rules-based automation. To implement this scenario, Rulestream offers out-of-the box integration with Teamcenter, also from Siemens PLM Software. TeamCenter is the product lifecycle management software that makes it easy to store display designs.
Business and technical rules are populated into the system. They usually are company- and sometimes even retailer-specific; they are not just pre-defined logical configurations of products. Example CPG-friendly rules are like “Packages from Division A and Division B can be placed in the same display tray,” or “Frozen goods and shelf-stable goods cannot go in the same display tray or end cap,” or “This tray can handle up to X pounds of product.” Then, the sales team can put together a custom end cap without breaking the rules. It lets the team say, “Start with this existing display tray. Change the artwork. Change to this product.” In the background, the rules are running to ensure that the items are configured properly, that they pass regulations, and are shoppable [can be seen by shoppers on the shelf].
Say a PDQ (pretty darn quick) tray has room for a lot of products, but only three of them have shoppable facings. [PDQs need no in-store assembly; the trays can be put on display as soon as they are removed from their shipping boxes.] The sales team tries to add a few more items, and the rules might come back to say, “No, that’s not a valid pack-out” or else “Yes, that’s fine.” Rulestream then produces and visualizes the new customized display, as requested.
Q: Can you build in workflows and approvals, such as financial margin
requirements, or is that something that is handled through a different
A: There are a few ways to handle approvals, depending on what is required. We are tightly integrated with the workflow capabilities of Teamcenter. If you need sophisticated workflows for approval in parallel, we can package up all the 3D images, drawings, BOMs (bills of materials), and images, and then have Teamcenter route the entire package for the appropriate approvals. Or, if it’s something as simple as someone in finance saying “Yes,” then we simply add a check box for approval. It might be that staff bend rules for large retailers, because this gains additional placement on shelves, so they can add automatic rules-based approvals, like “satisfies minimum margin” to accommodate management overrides.
Q: With CPG, have you found the trigger that gets them looking at
Rulestream; is it the first POP display, the first time they work with a
specific retailer like Wal-mart?
A: It’s when their existing processes and tools don’t keep up with the number of custom displays and special packaging they need to design. Before they can put rules into a computerized system, however, they need to understand what their rules are, and everyone has to agree on them. Some companies have already documented them; many times, however, we come into a company that hasn’t documented their rules, and so our services organization helps them define a process for knowledge capture. The level of assistance needed depends on the maturity of the company.
Q: Talking about the maturity of companies, are there existing IT
(information technology) structures to which you’ve seen complement
A: Typically, what we see is existing customers with home-grown solutions for special-package designs. This can be anything from Excel spreadsheets with macros, to Visual Basic and .Net programs. But these systems are often very difficult to maintain, because business rules change continuously and new products are always in the offering. The good part is that most homemade systems have necessitated a process for understanding and defining the rules and best practices; this makes introducing a system like Rulestream easier.
In terms of IT maturity, companies that have implemented 3D CAD, PLM, and ERP (enterprise resource planning) are good candidates because they are looking for that next level of business process optimization. Rulestream integrates with PLM and ERP systems to take advantage of existing product and material master data as well as automatic transmission of BOMs, specification documents, and assembly instructions.
Q: How are your customers able to justify and quantify the ROI (return
on investment); what are the metrics that are measuring in terms of sales,
profits, and productivity?
A: The ROI is interesting. For each customer -- and not just CPG, but also in other industries -- the reason they are buying is because they know this will unlock more sales. They’ll be able to offer, for example, more variety of special packs and displays. They’ll be able to respond more quickly to custom display requests from their customers, getting exactly what they want with instant visual confirmation, ahead of time. Every one of our customers says this is the key to growth, hitting their business plans, and then building on them.
Even though the top line improvements drive the emotional purchase decision, there is often resistance to justifying the purchase on revenue increases alone as that is difficult to guarantee (depends on market factors, etc.). Rulestream, however, helps on the backend so much that they can justify the purchase through operational savings. There are direct reductions in expenses: fewer materials are going in, because they are designing the most efficient product layouts. The people that were busy writing specs on how to configure displays are now able to cost-engineer the custom displays’ structure. Corrugate costs of POP displays go down; assembly costs at distributors go down.
There is also significant cost savings in producing images for the special packs. In the past, this was done typically by hand in Photoshop, so this can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars per image. Our software does it automatically in a matter of seconds.
The actual manual work is reduced: building the planogram [visual mockups of how the products will look in the store], figuring out how things stack, documenting how they are assembled for shipping, writing retail setup instructions, and so on. The rules system ensures that these items and instructions appear in the same place and happen in the same way. The consistency of output is critical so everything flows smoothly and things are not left up to on-the-fly decisions
The top line impact is what everybody gets excited about. Because of this, they all consider it a strong competitive advantage.
|Christopher McAndrew develops and markets toys and children's products. He has a bachelors degree in mechanical engineering from Tulane University. Chris writes the 3D Engr blog. More...|