Photo: Bax Lindhardt

Automatic design system saves millions

Thursday 02 Aug 18
by Jeppe-Moelgaard-Thomsen


Lars Hvam
DTU Management
+45 45 25 44 35


Sara Shafiee
DTU Mechanical Engineering

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The Manufacturing Academy of Denmark (MADE) was founded in 2014 to promote collaboration between universities and manufacturing companies. The focus is on a multi-year research programme to ensure development and innovation in Danish production companies.

The work is funded by Innovation Fund Denmark, and the companies and universities involved.

Sara Shafiee’s PhD thesis was prepared under the MADE project, with Professor Lars Hvam, DTU Management Engineering and Professor Niels Henrik Mortensen, DTU Mechanical Engineering as supervisors.

Three years ago, it used to take Haldor Topsøe one week to design a customized solution for a customer. It can now be done in ten minutes.

This is possible thanks to Sara Shafiee, who implemented product configuration in the company while working as an industrial PhD student at Haldor Topsøe.

Haldor Topsøe is one of the world’s leading suppliers of equipment and catalysts for the chemical industry. The company markets advanced systems, such as reactors that convert crude oil into petrol or diesel.

When Haldor Topsøe gets an order for such a system, it often comes with a long list of requirements specifying what the equipment has to be able to do, how it should look, and the maximum cost.

In the past, many engineers had to work for weeks at a time to design a proposal that met these requirements. However, thanks to postdoc Sara Shafiee, the customer’s requirements are now simply entered into a computer program, and the design is ready in ten minutes.

The solution is a ‘product configurator’, and we will come back to how these work later.

A lot of knowledge is hard to translate

If you have six rectangular LEGO bricks, each of which is two studs wide and four studs long, you can combine them in almost a billion different ways. This is possible because LEGO bricks are designed to fit together—they are standard modules.

 Many consumers today see the market as a collection of LEGO bricks. They want products matched precisely to their wishes and tastes. Many companies therefore base their products on standard modules, so they can quickly put together customized products based on the individual wishes of consumers.

For this to be possible, all elements of the product, such as steel plates and nuts, have to be encoded in a program—a product configurator. This keeps track of the components and how they fit together. The Nike website offers an example of a product configurator, where the customer can design their own sports shoes by combining elements from different models.

It is fairly simple to make a product configurator that designs sports shoes. It is much more difficult to make one that assembles complicated technical equipment. Yet this is precisely what Sara Shafiee, a postdoc at DTU Mechanical Engineering did at Haldor Topsøe.

“When I have to recreate just one of the hundreds of modules that make up a reactor in a product configurator, I need to collect data about dimensions, material, properties, and price from many different departments. So it’s a lot of information to keep track of,” she says.

However, once the product’s modules have been added to the product configurator, the design work is easier. The configurator can automatically work out how to combine the various components to create the exact solution the customer is looking for.

“The software outlines a customer-specific solution very quickly, and this probably saves us 80 per cent of the work,” says Kim Saaby Hedegaard, Vice President of Haldor Topsøe.

Haldor Topsøe has now reorganized its production strategy. Instead of designing a solution for each customer, the company lets a program design the solution that it will offer the customer.

Saves skilled labour

One of the biggest obstacles to date for complex engineering companies wanting to use product configurators has been that they have to gather very diverse and complicated knowledge in one place and transform it into data.

"We have shown that we can save many resources without compromising quality, because we have diverted the freed up labour to areas where it is more beneficial. "
Kim Saabye Hedegaard, Vicepresident, Haldor Topsøe

 For example, Haldor Topsøe has many employees who are domain experts. These experts have knowledge in different areas that are important for the final product to work. For example, you cannot make a reactor without involving electrical engineers, chemical specialists, and sales staff.

“If an electrical engineer removes a nut from a reactor, they have to be sure this does not impact the part of the unit that the chemical specialists are responsible for. A time-consuming team effort was therefore previously necessary,” says Sara Shafiee.

Before the product configurators were introduced, all the domain experts had to work together to design the customer-specific proposals. Now all the knowledge about each module is coded into an intelligent algorithm that can draw together all the threads for the experts. However, this creates a new challenge:

“When information from so many departments is incorporated into a common program, the result is almost impossible for anyone other than an IT specialist to read. For example, sellers cannot always explain to the customer why their order has been put together the way it is,” says Sara Shafiee.

Sara Shafiee has solved this communication problem. While working on her industrial PhD at Haldor Topsøe she invented an IT tool—a documentation system—that translates the product configurator’s highly complicated language into visual content that is easy to understand.

This project was one of the reasons Sara Shafiee received Innovation Fund Denmark’s Industrial Researcher Prize in 2018 and the Alexander Foss MADE Award in December 2017. 

Long-term savings

Sara Shafiee was subsequently employed as a postdoc on the MADE project, where she is working to implement product configurators in Haldor Topsøe’s production. There is great potential for saving money and resources in this area.

 Haldor Topsøe’s own cost-benefit analysis shows that implementing a product configurator for a given solution costs around EUR 40,000 (DKK 300,000) in the first year. But after five years the company has saved EUR 175,000 (DKK 1.3 million) per project.

“We have shown that we can save many resources without compromising quality, because we have diverted the freed up labour to areas where it is more beneficial. For example, we now spend more time working with the customer to fine-tune the proposal so that they get exactly the solution they want,” says Kim Saaby Hedegaard.

Professor Lars Hvam of DTU Management Engineering believes that the greater focus on customer care is a good decision for the company’s future competitiveness. He has been Sara Shafiee’s PhD supervisor.

“Asia is focussing on the mass production of identical products, and it is almost impossible for Scandinavian companies to compete with them. But we are also seeing greater demand at this time for unique, customized products. It is therefore wise for Danish companies to invest in systems that can make these solutions better and more efficient,” says Lars Hvam.

Sara Shafiee - CV

2017-Postdoc, DTU Mechanical Engineering Senior Business Consultant, Haldor Topsøe A/S (work area: project manager for implementation of product configurators)

2014-2017 Industrial PhD at DTU and Haldor Topsøe A/S (majoring in Management Engineering and Management Science), IT Project Manager, Haldor Topsøe A/S

2011-2013 MSc (Textile Engineering), Isfahan University of Technology, Iran

2006-2010 BSc (Textile Engineering), Isfahan University of Technology, Iran

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