Also known as Product Family Engineering, Product Line Engineering, or Domain Engineering
If you look up Platform Engineering in Google and Wikipedia you find Product Family Engineering and an explanation of how this technique was created by the Software Engineering Institute and is used in software engineering and the term Domain Engineering was coined by James Neighbors in his 1980 thesis.
There is no mention of the fact that this methodology has been used for over 100 years in mechanical engineering. (Typical of the current generation's blind focus on software!). Although to be fair, if you read James Neighbors' thesis you will find that he does refer to Eli Whitney's demonstration of "interchangeable parts" for firearms for the United States military in 1798, although being American he fails to say that this idea was first demonstrated 20 years before by Honoré Blanc in France.
The basic idea is that instead of creating everything from scratch with every new design, with a bit of thought and planning, one could re-use components and assemblies, or systems and sub-systems and thereby come up with a new product more efficiently.
There are actually two interconnected ideas here.
Various people have derived indices to evaluate how well this has been achieved.
The basic idea (and the terminology, I believe) goes back to the early days of the automotive industry where the car manufacturer would provide a running chassis, i.e. frame, suspension, steering, engine, transmission, axle, fuel system, cooling system and brakes (a platform) that could have a number of different bodies fitted to it. In some cases different engines would be fitted into a common frame. Thus a wide range of products could be offered for minimal extra investment.
This method of construction enabled Alfred Sloan at GM to bring in the idea of the annual model change in the 1920s, because it was relatively quick and easy to just engineer (perhaps I should say 'design and make', because I don't think bodies were 'engineered' in those days) a new body on top of an existing platform.
Pros & Cons of Product Families
The obvious advantage is that the manufacturer gets more bang for his buck. By re-using components he avoids re-engineering and re-tooling costs and gets economies of scale.
The disadvantages are that:-
1. This is fine if the base platform is a good one, but if it is costly or old technology, then its re-use is locking in something bad rather than something good.
2. Some or all of the product variants may be sub-optimal for performance or cost or both, because they are saddled with a platform and architecture that is not optimised for that variant. To take the car example again. The chassis frame has to be man enough for the heaviest vehicle, which can mean that it is over-engineered (i.e. over weight and too costly) for the lightest variant. Also the whole concept of a separate chassis and body is structurally less efficient that an integrated chassis and body, so the vehicle ends up being heavy and less rigid.
3. The customers may not see a product family as a good idea. They see insufficient differentiation between models and start to see through it as just a cost saving ploy (a 'con') by the manufacturer, rather than a series of good products for the customer. The motor industry provides the classic example of this from the 60s and 70s, when BMC (subsequently British Leyland and no longer in business) were heavily criticised for 'badge engineering'. i.e. making products that were marketed as being different, but were almost 100% the same, apart from the badge and a radiator grille. GM in the USA suffered similar criticism (and lawsuits!) with regards to engines as well as vehicles. This quote from Gavin Green of Car magazine shows what the motoring press thinks of badge engineering, "Nonsense! Badge engineering is always bad. It deceives the public, an insult to their discernment and intelligence. And it buggers the brand."
Example of Badge Engineering - Fortune Magazine & GM A-body cars from 1983
4. Often a target for commonality (parts re-use) is established for a family of products at the start of the programme in the 'big cigar talk' meeting, but then when one gets into the detail design this proves difficult to achieve, because individual design decisions gradually move things away from that target. Thus the products can end up falling between two stools, not common enough to get full advantage of the potential economies, but not individual enough to optimise performance.
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