How to Know What You’re Looking at in Fenestration Configuration Software
When I was a kid, I’d rummage through my Grandpa’s toolboxes and bring him tools I didn’t recognize, and he’d explain to me what they were and what they were used for. It was one of my favorite things to do when we’d visit him, and really was the only thing that we bonded over in the eighteen years that I knew him before he died.
Yet as soon as I first expressed an interest in Grandpa’s tools, he also started bemoaning the fact that it was only a matter of time before most of his tools were obsolete. For one thing, almost all of his investment was in SAE/Standard/Imperial tools, and everything was “going metric.” And even worse, the fundamental mechanical systems of automobile engines were being turned into black-box, solid-state electronics … things that the backyard mechanic would never be able to open up, figure out, trace the problem to the faulty parts, replace, and put back together. To him, an insatiably curious, mechanically-gifted whiz-kid who at thirteen (against his Father’s strict orders to NOT TOUCH IT) taught himself how to fix the broken-down family car and had it running before his Dad got home from work, these mounting changes in automobile design spelled doom for the backyard mechanic.
Grandpa’s mechanical ingenuity served him well, especially when he was drafted into the Army during World War II, and served in both the 62d Signal Battalion and the 85th Signal Company (within the 85th Infantry “Custer” Division). As I began writing this article, I remembered I’d interviewed him for an I-search paper assignment in one of my high school classes. After a remarkably short search, I found it on a disk and was fortunate to successfully convert it from its now obsolete file format. As I read the paper, the following story caught my attention:
One time Captain Nelson came to my grandfather with a problem. He had to build a cable line in three days. He had all the necessary equipment except for cable line. He couldn’t find any anywhere, not even at the quartermaster’s. My grandpa quickly remembered an abandoned cable line about one hundred miles behind. It had enough wire to build the new cable, but getting it down and transporting it would be a problem. My grandfather thought hard and came up with an idea.
The plan would utilize a military jeep wheel. Unlike regular wheels, jeep wheels had outer rims that bolted on (which facilitated quicker tire changes). Grandpa conceived the idea of welding guides onto the rims and then winding the wire onto the wheel. To wind the wire, a jeep had to be jacked up while facing the telephone pole. One of the wheels was removed, and the modified wheel was put in its place. Then the wire was started on the wheel, the jeep was put into gear, and it wound up the wire. When needed, the rim could be unbolted, and the wire could be easily removed. So both winding and removing would be a very quick process.
The next morning Grandpa showed Captain Nelson the wheel (which he had worked on all night) and explained the plan. He said, “I’ll need your jeep,” and without hesitating, Nelson replied, “You got it.” My grandfather instructed Captain Nelson to build the line–set up the poles and ready them for the cable, while he and Cleveland Shriver from the quartermaster’s went to retrieve the line. Grandpa’s idea worked, and Captain Nelson got his cable up in three days.
So why did this story capture my attention – so much so that I decided to share it in this article? There are a number of reasons we’ll discuss below, and I’m hopeful that this story will help illuminate the key application design criteria you want to look out for.
Your Core Product: NOT Software
One of the first things we can observe from the story is that, while Grandpa needed the Jeep, extra Jeep wheel, jacks, welding equipment, and metal to get the job done, his main job was not manufacturing Jeeps or signal-wire-winding tools – it was constructing signal cable for Allied communications.
Let’s face it: fenestration manufacturers, system houses, fabricators, and installers are not meant to be software development companies. You haven’t built a reputation, a business, nor a body of knowledge on bits and bytes; in the fenestration industry, your core business is providing a valuable, durable, aesthetic, and functional physical product that lets visible daylight into a structure while mitigating undesirable factors such as energy loss, weather, fire, explosions, and more, depending on your products and business’s “sweet spot”.
As with most manufactured products, the market tends to pressure its providers into the narrowest possible profit margins. If you want to escape the pressures of commodification, you’ll need to do everything you can to maintain ongoing innovation in your product portfolio. You want to differentiate your business from the ever-growing ecosystem of providers. You need to continually foster your customers’ trust in you and your products, providing them such obvious value that competing, commodity-priced fenestration products are just not that attractive anymore.
Software’s typical value proposition is that it provides innovative means to improve the seller-buyer relationship, either through improved interactions or by providing efficiencies that address the ubiquitous needs of buyers – lower prices and faster product delivery.
I’ll grant that fenestration-specific software can provide industry-tailored CRM and ERP tools that can increase “customer stickiness”, regardless of the physical design of your product. But when you’re looking specifically at software to address the perpetual challenge of product configuration – a subset of the more abstract Constraint Satisfaction Problem – choosing a software application that’s as analogous as possible to your physical product is crucially important. It just makes good sense.
Good Software Makes Good Sense … but what’s “Good Sense”?
At an elemental level, “Good Sense” in software design means that the software application is intuitive to those who use it to accomplish a specific purpose. While we’ve previously discussed the importance of technical software details – such as software architecture and database design – in this case, we’re talking about your users …and that’s not just limited to the employees who issue sales proposals and production orders. The software must also make sense to your business’s “product people” … not just product engineers, but also production managers and knowledgeable “hands-on” employees along the entire process, from transforming raw materials into fabricated parts, assembled and shipped as a complete product, and finally, installed in its purposeful place in a building.
What is absolutely not good sense? Fenestration configuration software that’s a black box – i.e., software that does not allow you and your employees to set up your products and configuration rules; that doesn’t allow you to see how it all works together to configure your products, costs, and prices; that you can’t actually get your hands on, diagnose, and correct things that may not be working as you intended. You don’t want what my Grandpa was complaining about with the trajectory of newer automobile design: a product that by design keeps you out of it, and for which you don’t have the right tools to work on it yourself.
Let’s say you want to manufacture and sell a high-end product: a fiberglass/timber composite double-hung window with a base 1” IGU, with available options for hard coat or soft coat Low-E, triple-pane, argon gas-filled, between-glass grids, exterior, and/or interior grids to make simulated divided lights, as well as optional between-glass blinds.
From a strict software perspective, to generate the correct bills of material, cost, and pricing for this product, all you need is a base parts list, standard costs for the parts, quantities, cut size formulas, and static or formula-based fabrication locations; you don’t absolutely need an abstract, physical representation of the model.
In fact, fenestration companies have proven this time and again by creating spreadsheets with these kinds of rules built-in. The spreadsheets can be more or less intuitive, depending on the skills of the people who’ve set them up; they may be difficult to troubleshoot due to complex in-cell formulas, and they don’t offer any kind of consolidation or optimization of bills of material – but they get the job done, and have done so for decades.
Similarly, the earliest specialized window configuration software – originating sometime in the 1980’s – provided similar functionality, but enhanced the basics with the ability to roll up totals and optimize extrusion and glass cutting. While these applications did not have a physical model to look at, the best of these offered a conceptual product model representing assembled parts of the actual, physical product. Sometimes referred to as “segmented bills of material”, these applications grouped parts and rules analogous to how the physical product is built.
So, rather than providing a complete product configuration altogether, the segments represented a physical sub-unit of the window. For example, a window like we described above would have BOM/configuration segments broken up as “frame”, “top sash”, “bottom sash”, “insulating glass unit”, “exterior grids”, “between-glass grids”, “interior grids”, “between-glass blinds”. Depending on the options a user selects, the segments get combined to result in a final, full BOM.
Fast-forward to now: computers have much more processing power, memory, and storage – and you have a glut of fenestration software offerings on the market, all of which enable configurable product, plus a 2- or 3D visual representation of a window product. Does it make a difference how you set up the product data, or whether you are even able to set it up yourself, rather than rely on a software vendor to program it for you? Or is the only real concern an accurate BOM, cost, price, and a pretty picture for the customer?
It indeed makes a difference. When it comes to finding the right people to set up and maintain your product data in a configuration system, what kind of employees are best suited for the work? Ones who understand the product – and who even may have spent their career-to-date on the production floor? Or “techies” – ones who grew up always playing with the latest gadgets and the hottest new programming languages, data storage techniques, and IT methodologies?
In my 25 years in the fenestration industry, the answer could not be more clear: if you don’t understand fenestration products, it doesn’t matter how much of a software guru you’ve become; you won’t be good at fenestration configuration. Some can learn it, for sure, but the people you really want to set up your software for your products and your business, are your people who know your products inside and out. The challenge you then face is that you need your product people to understand how to transfer and translate their intimate product knowledge into your fenestration software. So, quite obviously, the software must make good sense to them.
This is why it is so important that the software you’re evaluating is designed so that the product setup is as close as possible to how your physical product is actually built; to be most successful, your product experts can’t be hindered by software that requires some arcane abstraction or complex programming to set up all the correct parts, pieces, and rules.
So when you’re looking for a good fenestration software package, you need to involve your product experts. Have the vendor give them an overview of how the setup works; then later ask them if it makes sense to them or not. Ask good questions: does the setup make sense compared to a physical product? Can you build the software version of the window, door, storefront, etc. like you’d build a product? E.g. place a sash in a frame? Set a glass unit into a sash and add gasket and glazing beads? What kinds of properties are available to make rule-based changes? For example, can you switch fastener parts and add in or remove shear blocks based on which two extrusion profiles are being joined together? If you’re applying a sweep lock to the bottom sash, can the top sash “see” that lock and give you the correct keeper on the top sash? If you configure a door-sidelight door in a storefront opening, can the sidelight “know” that it’s between two doors and swap out the door frame jamb from the standard profile to a deep pocket profile? If you select between-glass grids, can the software make between-glass-blinds unavailable? Can you align grids between separate window models in the same opening?
Surmounting Insurmountable Challenges: Does Your Software Have The “Right Stuff”?
So you see now why is it so important to evaluate fenestration software for good sense. But even that is not always enough; your software must not only be able to solve current problems … it needs to foster the ability to solve new problems you haven’t encountered yet.
This brings us back to the story about my Grandpa. As a mechanic and corporal in the Army, Grandpa had a lot of experience with military signal lines and equipment, and he knew how to get the job done – just like many of his peers. But when Captain Nelson came to him with a new and urgent problem, there was no way to accomplish “business as usual.” Grandpa had to create a solution when his company did not have the current capability to get the job done. While his ingenuity did serve him well, if it were not for his inside-and-out knowledge of his job and the equipment he had, he could never have come up with the jeep-wheel-line-winder that was pivotal to the success of the operation.
As you embark on the process of transforming your business with fenestration software, your key players are going to be in a similar position to my Grandpa; that is, they will have their own ingenuity – but also, they’re going to need to know and understand that fenestration application inside-and-out – even though they’ve never learned programming or software development.
Your business is going to face new challenges ahead, and you cannot possibly foresee all these potential challenges. You’ll need people with the skills and knowledge of the tools you do have in order to succeed. Your product experts-turned-configurator-specialists need to not only understand product well, but also how your product configuration system works – and they’ll get there if the system makes good sense. Especially if they have software that makes sense and is flexible enough to solve new challenges. The people who are hands-on with your product day-in and day-out can be some of the most creative problem-solvers; knowing things “like the back of their hand” gives them the opportunity to envision new possibilities for the processes and tools they understand, just like my grandfather did with his “outside the box” wire-winding innovation.
While ingenuity is certainly the “right stuff” you’re looking for in your people, if your fenestration software is a black box that only your vendor can program for you – or if you can as a customer learn to set it up with your products in-house, but it’s so technical and abstract that your people struggle to understand the tool – where will you be?
You’ll find you have a Jeep, a wheel, and a welder, but nobody able to figure out how to get a new cable line stretched in three days.
Throughout this series, we’ve covered a broad range of perspectives that you’ll need to consider in evaluating fenestration configuration software: Company and Services, Product Offerings, Software Considerations, and finally, this article addressing Application Design. If I’ve kept your attention throughout this series, you now have a diverse set of tools in your toolbox to test the mettle of fenestration software packages and vendors. You’ll be able to tell whether the company and its offerings has the “right stuff.”