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7.1 Concluding the research questions

In section 1.3.1 the research questions were formulated and described. Delimitations and scope of the research presented was described in section 1.4. The research question addressed in this research is:

How can high variety, modular, and platform-based products be represented during product development that can provide cross-functional support through-out the entire product lifecycle in the industrial setting of the automotive industry?

The thesis has presented the research results obtained from focusing on the task to define an information model suitable for capturing the definition of variant rich, modularized, and platform-based products in an automotive setting. The main results are the concept of configurable components and the integration of this concept with existing well-established design methods and theories. The proposed concept of configurable components has furthermore been generalized and extended to provide an integrated model supporting product and manufacturing system development. The research presents how such a model can be achieved even though more work is required to add a more detailed understanding of how to utilize such a model in a cross-functional organizational setting.

The proposed approach to incorporating configuration mechanisms (i.e. configurable components) into a core product representation in an operational industrial setting has been developed, tested, and validated. The concept of configurable component was implemented using a commercially available PDM system and utilized as the core product representation in an operational context at Saab Automobile. The proposed approach and concepts for product representation were used both during the development phase of a new car and later during regular production to provide the necessary product information to the downstream manufacturing systems. The approach to implementation and some of the experiences gained have been reported in this thesis and appended papers.

The approach presented offers a viable approach for moving to the next generation of core product descriptions for companies that need to leverage their capabilities in dealing effectively and efficiently with variant rich, modularized, and platform-based products. The results achieved thus correspond well to the focus of the scope according to section 1.4 of this phase of the overall research project. The results obtained provide an important step in answering the second research question defined in section 1.3.1. In line with the aims and delimitations set for this phase of the research project, further research work is required to provide answers to all the research questions stated in 1.3.1. However, an important step in that direction has been taken with the research presented in this thesis.

Section 3.2 presented several important considerations regarding verification and validation of research results. The presented results have been verified in terms of their ability to deal with the stated problem area (i.e. definition of high variety, modular, and platform-based products) through integration with existing theories and methodologies and through implementation in an operative industrial setting. The industrial context as well as the referenced literature has illustrated the validity (i.e. relevance and meaningfulness) of the research results. Through the integration with and extension of existing well-established frameworks and models and the implementation and utilization of the results in an operative industrial setting, the internal logic, truth, acceptance, and applicability of the results has been demonstrated. The novelty value of the results has been demonstrated both in terms of acceptance of papers to conferences and in terms of references to literature that show how the results builds upon and extends them.

The concept of configurable components has been logically verified in terms of consistency and completeness (see reference to Buur in section 3.2.2). Consistency has been demonstrated in that the proposed model integrates well with existing well-established methodology and theory and in that the model was implemented and tested in a real life operative development environment. Completeness has been demonstrated in the sense that product definition information required to manufacture the produces was provided in the operative implementation. Furthermore, the proposed concept of configurable components is in agreement and has been described in relation to and as extension of existing well-established models and theoretical frameworks. Through the practical application of the concept in an implementation it has been demonstrated that the proposed concept of configurable components is able to provide increased understanding of variant rich products thereby showing that specific design problems can be explained better through the use of the concept. Through the implementation of the proposed approach in an operative development verification of acceptance has been demonstrated in the design community and the set of presented papers and this thesis provides evidence of acceptance by the scientific community.

In terms of external validity it can be noted that the research has been done using an action oriented approach in an automotive company (in this case Saab Automobile). Many automotive companies are developing similar products using similar approaches to product development. Thus the presented results should be applicable for all automotive companies. The results are reliable in the sense that it can be expected that other automotive companies will experience similar benefits and effects as described regarding the research results presented in this thesis. Furthermore, some level of transferability of the results should be possible based on the generality of the constructs in the proposed concept of configurable components it should be possible to apply the results two any product development dealing with high variety, platform-based products.

7.2 Evaluating the research work

The research work presented in this thesis has an abductive approach and has been performed as a form of action research where the collaboration between researcher and practitioners is in the form of co-action. In an abductive approach a particular case is studied and a particular result is generated. The research results and conclusion are in this approach based on empirical observations by the researcher in combination with established theoretical models from literature (see Figure 5 in section 3.1.5). The theoretical models used in this research are presented in chapter 4. Figure 52 illustrates how the proposed concept of configurable components depends on and builds upon existing theory. In this case empirical data is available since the researcher (in this case being one of the employees in the team) participates in ongoing activities in a dialogue oriented approach and on the same terms and conditions as the practitioners involved. In this approach the contributions of the researcher are intertwined with the contributions of others and, it is difficult to specifically distinguish the contribution of the researcher during the change process and also to determine how the knowledge of the researcher about the practical reality differs from that of the other practitioners involved. The generated results are based upon the particular case and are therefore only representative for the case. Additional arguments are therefore required in order to generalize the results.

The need for and purpose of the concept of configurable components that is the main contribution of the research work presented in this thesis have been identified by many people with several years of experience of product development at Saab Automobile. The concept developed and prescribed was successfully implemented in a commercially available PDM-system. This new core product description and release system was put into operational use to carry and support the development of a new product range of cars. Through the implementation and operative use of the proposed concept, a verification of the feasibility of the approach has been achieved. A successful implementation and utilization the concept of configurable components in a commercial PDM system and in an operational development environment provide sufficient verification of all four quadrants of the validation square (see section 3.2). The functionality implemented and used ranges from capturing the design solution entities and establishing the parameters and rules for the variability of the designs to release appropriate part data and part usages for manufacturing process control. Through the operational use in a vehicle development project the concept is utilized beyond example problems. However, the generality of the proposed concept is still bounded within the scope of the organizational setting in which it was deployed and within the problem scope of the development process for cars utilized in that organizational setting. Since no studies have been made on using the concepts and approach in other contexts, there is no evidence available as to the generality of the proposed concepts and approach. On the other hand, the basic concepts used to define the new constructs and approach, are general in nature and not specific to the automotive industry in general or Saab Automobile in particular. Therefore, it can be argued that the proposed concepts and approach are generally applicable for the support variant rich, modular, platform-based products.

In an action research approach like the one employed in this work, the knowledge obtained may not be appropriate to distribute outside the organization and in some cases not even within the organization itself (Westlander, 1999). The organization may want to keep knowledge about failures and successes to itself. To some extent this research work has been subject to these issues. Although not to the extent that it negatively impacts the results and contributions presented. The information that has been left outside the scope of this thesis concerns the more practical issues involved in the change management of the introduction of a new core product description system in an organization. Furthermore, since the course of events in an action research oriented app1roach inevitably differ from case to case, it can be difficult to obtain generalized knowledge. There is however no reason to believe that the defined modeling constructs should be defined differently given another setting and a different course of events. The proposed new modeling constructs depends on the type of industry and the type of products being developed, manufactured, and sold rather than on the actual course of events during the research work.

7.3 Contribution

7.3.1 Scientific contribution

The concept of configurable components has been developed and added to the existing body of scientific design knowledge and design methods. The configurable component concept is added as a possible extension (primarily in the embodiment design phase) to pave the way for effective and efficient re-use of design solution families that are parameterized in such a way that they can be configured to define part families or modular products. The contribution of this research is the mapping of the new proposed concepts to existing, generally recognized and available design methods and theories. The successful mapping with existing pre-knowledge is regarded to provide further evidence that the proposed concepts are valid and provide an extension to existing methods and theories.

7.3.2 Industrial contribution

The possibility to deal effectively and efficiently with variant rich, modular, and platform-based products through a new approach to the core product description system in a company has been developed, implemented, and used in an operational context in a new vehicle development program. Besides a verification and validation of the approach itself, it has been interesting to note that the proposed concept is capable of coexisting with current product description systems in such a way that the transition phase for a company changing to the next generation of product description systems can be supported through a gradual transition that can be carefully designed and planned. The industrial contribution is an enhanced ability to effectively and efficiently develop high variety, modular, and platform-based products using the proposed concept of configurable components. The concept of configurable components provides an additional method and tool in the toolbox of an experienced designer as well as a fundamental enabler for the development and implementation of a new generation product definition systems.

7.3.3 Implications of the results

The focus of this research work has been on the issues involved in dealing with variant rich, modularized, platform-based products in the automotive industry. Based on experience and findings, the concept of configurable components was developed as a proposal to include mechanisms for dealing variants using a modular approach to core product description systems. The main contribution of the research presented in this thesis is the adaptation and utilization of well-established design methods in the context of a new core product description and release environment. The first set of well-established concepts comes from systematic approaches to design and includes familiar concepts regarding axiomatic design, systems engineering, and parameterization and modularization. The second set of well-established concepts comes from the business systems area, including product description systems and release systems, material resource planning (MRP), and bill-of-material systems in general. Taken one by one each of these concepts is an important building block in any company that develops and produces products of some complexity. The results of this research have shown that there is a possibility to leverage a great potential through the combination of these concepts in a new generation of core product description systems. The main benefits achieved through this are the increased effectiveness and efficiency of operational issues regarding manufacturing and planning when dealing with a high degree of variants of a product range (modular products) and the improvements in management and re-use of design solutions in early and late phases of the product life cycle. Although it has not been the explicit purpose of this thesis to discuss the late phases of the product life cycle (after market issues regarding service parts, maintenance, and repair) the research work has provided some evidence that the proposed approach also has a great potential to improve these operational processes substantially.

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