How platforming builds a more resilient supply chain

Platforming enhances supply chain agility and resiliency by creating a modular, scalable framework that facilitates fast reactions and improved flexibility. This article from Supply Chain Management Review discusses the concept of platforming and the principles behind it.

COVID-19 has exposed just how easily supply chains can buckle under pressure. The fragility of globalized supply chains was on full display in the spring of 2020 as exasperated shoppers stared at empty shelves while manufacturers struggled to meet demand for everything from baking flour to bicycles. Many of the worst pandemic supply chain disruptions, including border closures, plant shutdowns due to COVID outbreaks and ship backlogs at ports, have eased in recent months. However, new pressures from inflation and commodity shortages are heating up as demand for housing, electronics and consumables grows across the United States.

A supply chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so operating in a post-COVID world requires a comprehensive approach to managing risk across the entire network. Complexity is the Achilles heel of the supply chain and companies with complex product portfolios inherently have more potential points of failure throughout their networks. Given the lessons of the pandemic, many companies are recognizing that managing complexity starts with design and they are turning to portfolio platforming as a key tool for simplifying their supply chains and building supply chain resilience.

Platforming is a design framework that leverages a common set of design, engineering and operational parameters and maximizes the use of modular or standardized components throughout the portfolio. Building off modular components accelerates innovation while enabling greater supply chain flexibility, particularly though postponement and late-stage customization. The goal is to enable variety where it matters (to the customer) while strategically minimizing its impact on the back end (in the supply chain). A well-executed platforming strategy reduces cost and risk across the entire value chain.

The cost of complexity

In the pursuit of growth over the past decade, companies have added new products to their portfolios at record speeds, largely driven by strong consumer spending, increased consumer demand for personalization and an expanding number of channels for shopping. Simultaneously, many have also been slow to exit legacy products, fearful of jeopardizing consumer loyalty or losing shelf space to competitors.

For some, this has created crippling complexity. For example, the line of fishing reels produced by a manufacturer of leisure sporting goods ballooned to 10,000 retail SKUs across hundreds of design platforms. This company, like many others, heavily indexed on innovation to drive sales; however, because nearly every reel was redesigned from the ground up, each new SKU drove the rampant proliferation of materials and components. This complexity required significant time to manage and added costs throughout the supply chain. Furthermore, portfolio management became increasingly cumbersome, which eventually slowed down their new product development cycle.

Why other solutions are inadequate

Efforts to address complexity are often superficial and may fail or only be partially successful because they focus on the symptoms of the issue rather than the root cause-the product portfolio itself.

SKU rationalization is a common approach for addressing portfolio complexity by trimming slow-moving or margin-dilutive SKUs. Unfortunately, this approach is frequently pursued ad hoc, which may leave the portfolio unbalanced. Complexity is also like the Hydra. Chopping off the tail in one category may cause it to regrow elsewhere. Finally, cutting out the dead wood often addresses only legacy, low-volume SKUs that are sitting in warehouses as inventory. These SKUs are rarely the ones causing operational challenges.

Component harmonization consolidates components that have similar specifications. However, these efforts are inherently limited because once something is designed in, it becomes difficult to harmonize at later stages.

Supplier consolidation can be an effective sourcing strategy to improve economies of scale. However, this needs to be executed carefully because over-consolidation can trigger business continuity risks that outweigh the benefits gained. Furthermore, even when done well, this approach only fixes the symptoms of complexity, not the cause.

Platforming future-proofs your portfolio

Because traditional efforts to reduce complexity fall short, a better approach is needed. The goal should not be to eliminate complexity entirely, but rather to find a way to support “smart innovation” through design. Platforming allows companies to customize a wide range of items by drawing from a shared set of thoughtfully crafted modules.

Think of product design platform like Legos. The modular blocks are standardized, but they can be configured billions of ways to create everything from a dinosaur to a life-size Bugatti.

We worked with a personal care company that had thousands of caps and bottles in different sizes, shapes and materials, many of which were off-the-shelf designs. By thoughtfully platforming their packaging designs and adding digital printers to the end of the filling lines, they were able to postpone customization of the bottles and drive significant supply chain efficiencies, including consolidating suppliers, lowering packaging costs and reducing inventory.

Platforming is also more than just a means to support portfolio variety effectively-it’s a hedging strategy. Every company aspires to design a customer-centric portfolio, but it’s largely impossible to predict the volumes of every variant and the trends of tomorrow. By using interchangeable components with platforming, companies are less likely to be locked into one design and can instead easily reconfigure new products based on consumer needs.

The principles of platforming

Some of the companies we work with initially believe they have platforms, but they may not be fully realizing the leverage inherent in true platforming. We’ve seen several enablers that are critical to achieving true platforming success; they are as follows.

* Standardization. To scale platforms, companies need to adopt a design philosophy that is centered on standardization. This need means having standard physical and digital interfaces to enable interchangeability or interoperability across products. This also means having well-defined standards for components, for example, common materials, material grades, colors, chipset architecture and ecosystems. Sometimes standardization increases costs at the SKU level, but still yields significant benefits at the portfolio level.

* Leverage commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology. There are advantages to leveraging COTS technology as part of platforming. This reduces upfront development cost, reduces certification costs and often accelerates time-to-market.

We advise engineering teams to avoid falling into a “not invented here” mindset, which often leads to spending unnecessary time reinventing commercially available technology.

* Build as you fly. A common misunderstanding of the platforming approach is that it requires a substantial ground-up development effort and has a very long payback. However, when done with rigor and focus, results can be realized in months, not years.

Companies should resist the urge to build out the entire platform library before the launch of new products. Instead, they should build the platform elements needed for select products, launch these products and then continue adding additional platform elements later. Furthermore, platforming should not be limited to new products. We frequently help companies platform products that are out on the market during product refresh cycles.

Strike a balance

Designing a balanced portfolio through platforming is only half of the challenge. It’s equally important to maintain discipline and prevent the process from unwinding over time. Following are five key requirements to sustain the benefits of platforming.

1. Platforming mindset. The organization must shift from a “pure product” mindset to a platform mindset. This requires a change in thinking from “we have to build…” to “how can we use…?” This mindset starts at the most senior executive level and should then be cascaded through the organization.

2. Governance. A cross-functional council should oversee portfolio decisions and set parameters for the introduction of new products. The council monitors technology and component proliferation, challenges the team to use existing platform elements and follows a structured approval process before adding new assets to the platform library.

3. Organizational adaptability. Platforming is not just an engineering effort. It requires close collaboration with sales, marketing and supply chain. The engineering team must pivot from being product focused to being platform focused and they should be keyed into business insights that will influence design choices. This includes consumer insights from marketing, retail insights from sales and supply market insights from procurement.

4. Marketing buy-in. Leaders in platforming have marketing teams that embrace platforming and leverage it to reinforce brand identity. Apple is a great example. They use common materials to create a clean, visual identity across their portfolio. We recently worked with the marketing team of a beauty company to platform their packaging, which included harmonizing components and moving to recycled materials across the portfolio. This both lowered costs and achieved sustainability goals.

5. Platform library. All available platform elements or assets should be codified in a library to facilitate reuse across the organization. Elements should include technical documentation, interface rules and even the names and contact details for the module “owner.” Platforming, like any other approach, involves trade-offs. A platform naturally limits choice because it predetermines certain variables such as product components or dimensions. However, when the modules are thoughtfully designed, these constraints can be effectively managed. A successful platforming strategy strengthens choice for the consumer while optimizing flexibility, costs and risk for the company. The end result is a win for the top line and the bottom line.

The authors would like to thank Alexander Brum and Kushal Fernandes for their contributions to this article.

Caitlin O’Keefe is a partner in Kearney’s Strategic Operations practice. She is based in New York. Bharat Kapoor is a partner in Kearney’s Strategic Operations practice. He is based in San Francisco. Namrata Shah is a principal with Kearney’s PERLab. She is based in Boston.


This article was written by Bharat Kapoor, Caitlin O’Keefe and Namrata Shah from Supply Chain Management Review and was legally licensed through the Industry Dive publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to