The Right Tools for the Right Configuration

One thing is clear: Today, because of customers’ demand patterns, manufacturing industries need to closely tailor their product and model ranges to customer demand. As a result, not only the complexity of the products increases, but also the number of product variants. Depending on customer requirements, there are numerous configuration options – and therefore variants – even for standard products such as printing presses.

SAP Variant Configurator (LO-VC) is the tried-and-tested tool for managing variants efficiently. No other configurator is so tightly integrated in SAP ERP. The tool is used to map all characteristics of the different variants of a product with their mutual relationships, which ensures a uniform knowledge base with minimal master data and a manageable number of structures.

As an integral part of SAP ERP, LO-VC also supports all processes in procurement, logistics, product development, production, and sales and distribution. As a result, the technical feasibility of a variant, its price, and the date of delivery can all be determined on the basis of an already defined set of rules, known as the object dependencies. SAP continuously enhances variant configuration and takes account of practice-oriented suggestions from the Configuration Workgroup (CWG), a group of SAP customers primarily from the production industry.

Rapid modeling

One of the most important enhancements is the Product Modeling Environment for Variant Configuration (PME VC). It is available as of SAP ERP version 2004. The user-friendly and independent modeling tool is embedded in all logistics processes and offers an integrated environment for interactive configuration with clear navigation. Central elements include the model tree, which provides the “model view,” the work area for the import of characteristics or dependencies, and the detailed area, which provides additional information on a model and allows the user to make changes.

Thanks to the model view, new product models can be built on the basis of existing material master data, classes, characteristics, and bills of material, and be maintained easily from just a single transaction. The relevant characteristic values can be derived for each product characteristic with a simple mouse click. As the tree structure provides a complete view of each configured model, you can also create new models more quickly, which in turn accelerates the processes in product development.

In the current version of SAP ERP, new features have been added to the modeling environment. These include Dependency Editor and Dependency Wizard.

Dependency Editor guides modelers through all processes during the configuration of a model and therefore supports the correct creation of object dependencies. It shows which model alternatives are possible and therefore enables users to create and maintain dependencies. It also offers an input help (F4) function, which displays the available syntax or objects for a current item. In this way, users can easily check which element the system expects next, and therefore create a syntactically correct dependency.

If a user does not know the correct default command, for example, during creation of a dependency, the system offers this – $SET_DEFAULT – via the help function. Other suggestions from the CWG have also been implemented: For example, it is now possible to print out the object dependencies in full, including the required header data, directly and automatically. This was not possible previously, and instead had to be done manually using copy and paste. The header data is comparable with the footer of a Word document and contains important data such as the name of the object dependency and its storage location.

With the “Table Constraint Wizard” function available since SAP ERP 6.0, it is possible to create table-based constraints – a complex form of the SAP object dependencies – without explicit prior knowledge. This speeds up the creation and maintenance of SAP object dependencies and reduces the time spent training new employees.

Online access to configuration

For many manufacturing companies, configuration has become a central part of the sales process, whether it is carried out by sales staff at the customer location or via customer and trader portals. In all cases, online access to the product logic stored in SAP ERP, including the material and product prices, is essential, as this is the only way customer-specific variants can be created correctly and sales prices can then be calculated reliably. The used tool for this is Configuration Engine (formerly: SAP Internet Pricing and Configurator, SAP IPC). As of SAP ERP 6.0, it can also be used for product configuration directly in the SD document of the ERP system.

From a technical point of view, Configuration Engine – originally a component of SAP Customer Relationship Management (SAP CRM) – is now part of the Application Platform of SAP NetWeaver and runs on SAP NetWeaver Application Server. With Configuration Engine, SAP customers who use sales channels both via SAP ERP, for example in connection with the SAP E-Commerce for SAP ERP web shop solution, and via SAP CRM now have a uniform configuration tool for product configuration.

A prerequisite here is the creation of a specific, self-contained knowledge base in Configuration Engine. To this end, the configuration logic (such as product data, classes, characteristics, bills of material, and object dependencies) stored and maintained in SAP ERP Variant Configurator is extracted in the form of knowledge base objects and loaded to Configuration Engine via SAP standard interfaces. These knowledge bases are maintained in a similar way to other variant models in SAP ERP.

In the case of existing models, only the delta list, in which the differences between LO-VC and Configuration Engine models are declared, needs to be taken into consideration. If, for example, a sales person executed the configuration process, including pricing, with Configuration Engine at the customer’s site, the data is imported back to the SAP ERP Variant Configurator, where it then triggers the required processes in planning, purchasing, production, and sales and distribution.

Shared knowledge base

The knowledge base objects can be replicated and therefore used in every application that accesses Configuration Engine – such as SAP CRM, SAP ERP or SAP E-Commerce for SAP ERP. In this way, different user groups in an enterprise, for example the field sales team, internal sales team, or production planning team, share the same tool for product configuration. This avoids redundancies in the information flow, smoothes the process chain, and accelerates processes from configuration and pricing right through to production and delivery.

An added bonus: All users work with a standardized and web-based user interface. Modifications and enhancements to this interface only have to be implemented once and then take effect in every application. Both PME VC and Configuration Engine work with existing product models created in earlier releases of SAP Variant Configurator. Installation and operation of separate databases and servers is not necessary, which leads to significant savings in the operating costs.

Simple CRM scenarios

Manufacturing enterprises that do not have a CRM solution, on the other hand, can use Configuration Engine in combination with the SAP E-Commerce for SAP ERP shop solution to quickly create simple CRM and E-Commerce scenarios with end-to-end processes without integration gaps.

For example, the smaller agents and sales offices of printing press manufacturer MAN Roland Druckmaschinen GmbH work with local installations, and as a rule they do not have access to the central SAP R/3 software in the Offenbach head office. Up until recently, these agents faxed or emailed their offers and orders to the head office, where they were checked for plausibility by the internal sales team, manually entered in the SAP software, and then confirmed, again by fax or email.

Things are different today. All processes, from configuration and pricing to the creation of quotations and their conversion to purchase orders, are now fully integrated and executed without manual postprocessing. The trading partners are integrated in the enterprise’s processes via an online portal based on SAP E-Commerce for SAP ERP. The portal contains a configurator in which the product logic from the ERP system is made available online via Configuration Engine.

This ensures that all configurations for incoming purchase orders are technically correct and complete. Quotation and purchase order data automatically flows into the ERP backend, where it is stored in the form of SD documents with uniquely identifiable document numbers. In this way, MAN Roland has been able to make its customer-related sales processes far more efficient, accelerate its order processing, reduce throughput times, and provide better information on the status of orders.