Configurability, is a property of systems that allows them to be appropriate for multiple purposes. This section considers the cost and benefits of configurability.

Take a simple example. A pre-tuned radio can receive and amplify exactly one channel. Adding a simple variable capacitor with a user configurable knob allows it to tune to stations across an entire broadcast band. Adding the knob increases the cost of the radio while at the same time increasing the value of the product.

The decision to increase the configurability of a product must be balanced with the target cost and market. Configurability is taken to the extreme in software systems with the introduction of data driven algorithms. In some sense all software programs are data driven in that they behave differently in response to the input data. Data driven system's basic behavior is predominantly determined by configurable parameters.

This technique is used in a similar way with some mechanical systems. The behavior of a machine is influenced by the attachments that are selected. For example; a plain farm tractor is a loader when a bucket is attached to the front or a backhoe when a special arm is attached to the back.

Managing Configurability

The system engineer manages configurability by determining the number of feature attributes incorporated into the design, manufacture and operation of a product. Some design processes allow for configuration during the design. Some general parameters are; What hardware architecture is to be supported or various capacities. Other products can be configured during manufacture, like; selection of engine, body color and various optional features. Other products can be configured during operation. Some of these we take for granted such as; shall I drive forward or backward, What CD will be played while driving. Others are not as obvious but just as common, such as; computer based adaptive control of fuel mixture, transmission shift points.

How Much is Too Much Configurability

Is it possible to make a thing too configurable? Yes it is. We have all seen exaggerations of the Swiss Army Knife. We know that the price of a product goes up with added configurability. So when a product is priced out of the range of similar products you have the problem of appealing to niche markets like the very wealthy. You can also aggravate customers by making the important functions too hard to configure because they get lost in an otherwise elegant configuration scheme.

Consider what would happen if an auto maker were to move the accelerator to the new computer keyboard on the console? No one would be able to drive the car out of the dealer lot.

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