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How does Product Line Engineering reduce development costs?

posted Jan 3, 2017, 2:07 AM by Attila Nemeth
One of the key motivators for Product Line Engineering (PLE) is to provide customized products at reasonable costs. Although there are other important factors to be considered, even the sustainability of the business is affected, let us now concentrate on how PLE can help to reduce development costs, as this is the immediate question that is analyzed before any investment is done.

If we take a look at the "Main Challenge" part for PLE in the previous article, we find some things that sound like we have to spend money: "Collaboration is more complex. Higher coupling of activities on assets in reused parts. Possibly higher QA effort."

Actually, this is true: PLE uses reusable assets to produce multiple systems in an efficient way. We clearly gain a benefit by not having to develop and(!) maintain the same thing multiple times, but to be able to make an asset reusable, upfront investment needs to be done.

Looking at the numbers, in case this investment is lower than the benefit we gain, PLE is a thing for us. Depicting the total cost of 'n' different systems to be developed, we can find a break even point where taking also the upfront investment of PLE into calculation, the accumulated costs developing multiple systems will be lower than in case of single system development. According to empirical studies in different domains, the break even point is around 3-5. This means if a company has more similar products in the portfolio, the investment into PLE might be worthy.

Of course, this is a simplified calculation, in fact several of organization specific factors influence where the break even point is located in a specific case. 

Other reuse approaches can be compared to PLE in a similar way. In some development aspects the gap between the lines might be lower than in case of single systems development and PLE, however only PLE provides a holistic approach in each development aspect.

Well, there is another kind of break even point in development of multiple systems that is indirectly connected to costs but has even a bigger impact, and that is the sustainability of the business itself. At this break even point, using conventional approaches adding more engineering capability will be exceeded by the complexity of the development.

The consequences may be familiar: despite hiring additional engineers at all costs no new projects can be engaged and customers must be turned down. This can easily disrupt any business.

What can we do then? Actually, we can flatten the curve for engineering complexity and in the area of multiple systems development PLE is the approach that can be used to achieve this.