When I first started my engineering career, I did not know much about configuration management. In fact, my introduction to configuration management was more about what happens when it is missing.
I had been making a series of iterations of the product, without keeping track of each iteration of the product documents. Eventually an iteration of the product quit working entirely, and I had to trace the previous incarnations. This was not a very good way to learn about the consequences of not managing the configuration of the product.
Over the years, I have spent considerable time learning configuration management because it is integral to the development of any product and its subsequent manufacturing.
Configuration management consists of five pillars:
- Configuration management planning defines the naming convention for identifying parts and assemblies, as well as the units of measurement, such as metric vs. standard units.
- Configuration management identification defines baselines and key components and interfaces.
- Configuration management control evaluates the consequences of proposed changes to the system for approval or disapproval.
- Configuration management status accounting records and reports status of configuration items (release notes) and departures from the baseline.
- Configuration verification and audit reviews the actual product iteration against established definition and performance.
Configuration management uses these pillars to archive and associate various products and artifacts. Configuration management is what makes it possible to connect a set of requirements documents, for example, to an iteration of the product. Effective configuration management makes it possible for manufacturers to know just what the customer has in the way of the product.
Configuration management involves every department of a company, from marketing to aftermarket support.
The marketing team are boundary spanners. They are looking for new customers and opportunities to which the company can add value. In some companies, the marketing team may be responsible for the product road map, which can change over time. This road map essentially informs portions of the company, like product development and manufacturing, of the sorts of new things the company must deliver in the future.
This enables preparation. The company can acquire specific talent that it may be missing, or processes or other capability it may need to develop. Changes to this road map must be understood, and a new iteration of this road map would then be distributed. Configuration management is the system that records these things, manages the changes, and ensures that the latest iteration of the road map is distributed to the teams.
In product development, configuration management will set design attributes. For example all parts will be measured in metric units, thus ensuring the various parts will fit together as planned, even when the product is developed over multiple suppliers and in many countries.
However, this is not the end of the impact of configuration management on product development. Configuration management will also be part of the planned iterations of the variety of parts as the company defines the specific interfaces and other key attributes of the product.
In addition to coordinating the design as the product evolves,
configuration management documentation will serve as stepping stones for additional adaptations, including market modifications as well as providing a known product baseline for future innovation. Essentially, configuration management provides a record of product learning upon which future products can be built.
To adequately test the product will require the test group to know just what is in the product. Configuration management facilitates testing by identifying the functional content of any specific product incarnation from development. In this way, configuration management provides a detailed road map of the product growth. The detail of each product incarnation is found in the release notes for that specific product.
In many industries, such as automotive and medical device manufacturing, field defects may be cause for exploration into how the product was developed and tested. In such instances, the company may be required to demonstrate the specific tests performed, as well as being able to replicate those tests—including the specific equipment and equipment configurations upon which those tests were conducted.
In these cases, configuration management provides a traceability. In the event of a lawsuit, it can help establish that the company was adequately diligent in the testing of the product. Even when there are no legal entanglements associated with field failures, the company at least has a record of what was done and the ability to repeat tests to help uncover how the defect was missed. In this way, configuration management provides support for continuous improvement efforts.
Configuration management is the tool that connects the design incarnation to the setup attributes of the manufacturing line. Product and manufacturing requirements are coordinated, ensuring that the most important requirements will be prioritized. This will be part of the design for assembly and design for manufacturing efforts, which run concurrent to the development of the product.
Additionally, configuration management connects manufacturing line setup and work instructions to a specific incarnation of the manufacturing line and final run off of the product at the end of the line. As such, it will be of great help as the company employs continuous improvement techniques, such as total quality management. The company will always have a record of what works, and it can easily go back either to reinstate an earlier way of delivering the product or trace back to how things once worked to understand how the company got where it is now.
In either case, this provides the company with a record of learning during manufacturing efforts. The company can always explore other ways to accomplish production goals, because it has a metaphorical net in configuration management—specifically, a document for how the manufacturing line worked in the previous iteration.
Configuration management will tie together the design and manufacturing documents and artifacts of the product to a specific iteration of the product in the field. For example, should the product have a failure in the field, the company can link that failure to specific manufacturing and material handling processes, along with a very specific design incarnation.
Configuration management keeps track of the documentation that allows a company to produce the product. Much learning likely occurred along the way, and this documentation, when done well, essentially records that learning. From this point, additional learning can happen, built upon something known to be true.
Many products undergo transformation over the years. Technology advances. Electronics shrink and use less power. The product transforms. Customer applications may also change, and that can be very radical. Fortunately, however, the company will have a well-documented platform from which future products and services can be built with a higher degree of certainty.
Configuration management touches so many things, from project management and product development through to manufacturing and aftermarket. It provides traceability of the product iteration as well as the jumping off point for other market adaptations and future innovations. Configuration management also provides a knowable and fixed point from which companies can coordinate work and control change. It is a fundamental set of processes for managing the product, supply chain and much more.