Emilia Dunaj
Emilia Dunaj
Head of Technology Insights
April 2024, 14 min. read

Product configurators transform the way products are sold and experienced. But did you know there were various types of configurator software, each tailored to different business needs and product types? 

Product configuration tools, often thought of as just tools for creating custom orders, actually play a much broader role. They range from internal systems used to generate Bills of Materials (BOMs), to interactive tools that help sales reps in crafting tailor-made solutions for clients. 

In many cases, they even take the forefront, becoming self-service platforms that allow customers to take the driver’s seat in the customization process.

How your business uses this comprehensive tool can significantly influence your market positioning and customer experience. 

This article will cover six main types of product configurators, focusing on their differences and how they relate to software complexity. We’ll help you understand which type might suit your business needs best.

Understanding types of product configurators and configurations

In simple words, the configurator type is your toolkit for product customization, while the configuration type is the path customers take to tailor a product to their needs.

So, the product configurator type refers to the software or system used for customization. 

For instance, in a business selling custom bicycles, the configurator type is the tool that lets customers design their bikes, from choosing colors to selecting specific components.

Product configuration type, on the other hand, is the way customers engage with these options. 

Using the same bicycle example, one customer might pick a pre-built bike and simply change the color. This is a straightforward Select-to-Order configuration approach. Another customer might prefer to select every component, like the frame and handlebars, which is a more complex Configure-to-Order configuration.

6 Product-specific configuration types

After mentioning Select-to-Order and Configure-to-Order, we see that the choice of product configuration strategy depends on the complexity of the product and its manufacturing and marketing approaches. 

Next, we outline different types of configurations, helping you identify which might be best for your manufacturing processes.

1. Select-to-Order configuration

The Select-to-Order configuration, or STO configuration, is the simplest form of product customization, ideal for straightforward B2B transactions. You simply choose a pre-packaged solution from a set menu–quick and efficient. As a result, There’s no customization in terms of features or components–what you see is what you get.

STO is ideal for products with little need for customization, like basic software packages. This approach is time-efficient and straightforward, cutting down on lengthy decision-making processes. Therefore, it’s perfect for products with consistent quality and specifications, where the buyer knows exactly what they’re getting.

STO configurators are convenient and offer a quick turnaround. This model significantly reduces lead times, making it a go-to choice for products that need to be delivered rapidly.

💡 Handy tip: If your business deals with huge product ranges, you may benefit from a specialized product search and selection tool. This tool can navigate through millions of choices, suggesting the most suitable products based on the user’s chosen parameters. It’s especially helpful for the STO configuration process where the range is vast, ensuring customers find exactly what they need quickly and efficiently. 

2. Pick-to-Order configuration

PTO, or Pick-to-Order, offers a bit more customization than STO yet remains streamlined. It’s suitable for B2B clients who need standard products with a few personalized touches.

In PTO, clients choose from a predetermined set of options or add-ons. This allows for some level of customization but within a controlled, pre-defined range.

Ideal for products where clients might need standard variations, like software with different licensing options or office chairs with adjustable features. A good example is a business selecting a cloud storage plan with additional security features or custom branding options.

Moreover, this type of configuration offers a balance between standardization and customization. It allows businesses to address specific customer needs without overcomplicating the process.

Consequently, PTO configurators are efficient for products that require a degree of personalization without being built from scratch.

💡 Handy tip: If employing PTO, highlighting the ease of customization in your product descriptions to enhance customer engagement. Showcase how simple choices can lead to a personalized product to attract potential buyers.

3. Configure-to-Order configuration

Configure-to-Order, or CTO configuration, is a more advanced level of customization, ideal for B2B clients who need tailored solutions built from a variety of options.

This product configuration type allows customers to tailor a product from multiple fixed options. It’s ideal for more complex products where each choice can significantly alter the final product.

It’s best suited for managing complex products like industrial machinery, specialized software, or custom cars, where the buyer can select various components and features. CTO configurators offer high customization, allowing businesses to precisely meet the unique requirements of their clients.

This approach also allows businesses to maintain a standard product base while offering customization in areas that matter most to the customer.

💡 Handy tip: In CTO configurators, an intuitive configurator interface is a critical factor. Ensuring customers can easily navigate through the customization options can significantly enhance their experience and decision-making process.

4. Assemble-to-Order configuration

ATO configuration, or Assemble-To-Order configuration, is designed to put together a product using pre-existing components based on the client’s specifications. This approach offers more customization than PTO, which is ideal for B2B clients with specific project needs.

In ATO, clients can mix and match components from a set inventory to create a product that meets their specific requirements. Each component is pre-made, but the combination is unique.

This type of product configuration is perfect for modular products, where different configurations can serve varied purposes. A good example comes from the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) industry, where you can customize systems to meet the specific environmental needs of a building or facility. For instance, a hospital may require an HVAC system that includes specific air filters and humidity control for different wards.

Assemble-to-Order configurators offer a balance between customization and efficiency. They allow businesses to provide a high degree of personalization while keeping inventory and production processes streamlined.

For the customer, it means getting a product that fits their specific project needs without the wait time typically associated with fully custom items.

💡 Handy tip: If you’re employing ATO, focus on showcasing the versatility of your product range. Illustrating the different combinations and possibilities available to customers can be a powerful tool in driving engagement and sales.

5. Make-to-Order configuration

In the Make-to-Order system, also known as MTO or BTO (Built-to-Order), each product is made to order, allowing for a high degree of customization. This process starts only after the client places an order, ensuring that each product is tailored to their exact specifications.

MTO ensures that clients get precisely what they need, though it typically involves longer lead times due to the bespoke nature of production. This approach is popular in sectors like manufacturing, jewelry, or high-end fashion, where each product is a unique creation.

For example, an architectural firm may require a specialized 3D printer to create detailed models of their product designs. They order a printer that is specifically built to handle the materials and precision levels they need, which is not available in standard product models.

This approach also allows businesses to operate without excess inventory, as products are made only when needed.

💡 Handy tip: If you’re producing make-to-order products, focusing on the exclusivity and personalized nature of your offerings can be a key selling point. Emphasize the craftsmanship and attention to detail in each order to boost customer appeal and loyalty. Showcasing these aspects can help customers appreciate the unique value of your products.

6. Engineer-to-Order configuration

Engineer-to-Order (ETO) represents the highest level of customization, where products are engineered from the ground up to meet specific, often complex, client requirements. 

In ETO, the product doesn’t exist before the client places an order. Every aspect of the product is designed and built to meet unique specifications, often requiring innovative engineering solutions.

Engineer-to-Order software allows for the creation of products that are precisely tailored to the client’s exact needs and specifications, offering a level of customization that other methods can’t match. While it involves longer development and production times, the result is a product that perfectly fits the client’s unique requirements.

ETO is suited for complex products like large-scale machinery, bespoke software systems, or specialized construction projects where off-the-shelf solutions simply won’t work.

For instance, an Engineer-to-Order example could be a company in the energy sector requiring custom machinery for a new renewable energy project. Similarly, a large corporation might need a specialized software system for global operations.

💡 Handy tip: For ETO-focused businesses, showcasing your engineering prowess and problem-solving capabilities can attract customers looking for tailored solutions. Emphasize past successful projects and your ability to meet complex requirements to build trust and credibility in your expertise.

| Unsure which approach is best for your products? Don’t hesitate to contact our experts for guidance.

Industry-specific product configurators

91% of B2B buyers prefer online ordering. Thus, industry-specific configurators are crucial. However, each industry faces its unique set of challenges and opportunities, influenced by varying client demands, manufacturing processes, and regulations. This means businesses have to use product configuration tools in ways that work best for them.

For example, what works for car manufacturers might not be the same for a medical equipment company. 

Let’s look at how different sectors use these configurators to meet their specific needs and make sure their products are just right for their customers.

Product configurators for car manufacturing industry

In the car manufacturing industry, configurator software allows for easy and precise vehicle customization. Furthermore, customers can choose product features like color, engine type, wheel size, interior materials, and additional accessories.

A recent innovation is 3D configurators, which give a more interactive and visual customization experience. Advanced 3D car configurator software provides a more dynamic and immersive way for customers to see and modify their car’s features in a realistic 3D environment.

This flexibility typically aligns with Configure-to-Order configurations, allowing for a range of personalization while maintaining structured manufacturing processes.

Right Information developed an advanced car configurator for a leading automotive brand which transformed its sales process. Our tailor-made auto configurator streamlined the dealership operations, offering a comprehensive and intuitive platform for car customization. 

Car product configurator

Additionally, it integrates seamlessly with the client’s CRM system, providing a unified source of product information. The configurator is placed online and allows customers to experiment with various options like color, engine types, and additional features in real time. This dramatically improves customer experience but also increases operational efficiency in sales.

→ Read more about this car configurator software in our Case Study: Advanced Car Configurator.

Product configurators for HVAC industry 

A configurator for HVAC must handle complex technical specifications while remaining user-friendly. They can serve as website product catalogs for complex products, advanced search and selection tools, and comprehensive product stores. This enables customers to tailor products like heating and cooling systems to their exact needs. 

HVAC Product Configurator
Image source

Over the years, we’ve built many different types of HVAC configuration systems. A standout project is an advanced Configure-to-Order solution we built, designed to allow users to select and customize HVAC systems to precise specifications. 

This HVAC system configuration tool simplifies complex selection processes, incorporating features for technical calculations like load calculations and airflow and pressure drop. 

Integrated with a Product Information Management System (PIM system), it ensures data accuracy and consistency, making it an essential tool for both pre-sales and sales stages. 

This digital solution is a great example of how a CTO configurator can be effectively tailored to industry-specific needs. 

→ More details can be found in the case study: Online HVAC Product Selection Program.

Interior design and furniture configurators

In the furniture and interior design industry, configurators allow users to configure products, typically aligning with the Configure-to-Order type. Potential customers can choose from various design elements such as colors, materials, and dimensions, tailoring products like sofas, shelves, or entire room layouts to their personal preferences and space requirements.  

IKEA, for example, places 3D furniture configurators online to allow customers to design rooms or select furniture pieces, combining them in various ways.

furniture configurator example
Image source

Additionally, the online furniture configurator software shows customers how different configurations would actually look in their homes, enhancing decision-making and personalizing the shopping experience. 

Medical product configurators

In medical products, configurators enable hospitals and clinics to customize items like surgical instruments or hospital beds. They can adjust features such as height, choose materials for different environments, and add modular attachments for varied procedures. 

Typically, this customization is a Make-to-Order strategy, crucial for creating highly specific healthcare equipment.

Alternatively, healthcare product configurators can offer simpler choices, like asking who will use the machines and for what purpose, aligning more with a Select-to-Order approach.

service configurator example
Image source

Both methods ensure medical equipment meets precise requirements and patient needs.

Service configurators

Service configurators, like those used in insurance, let customers pick and customize their services. Users can create their own insurance plans, such as choosing different coverage options, deductibles, and additional features. 

For instance, in the insurance industry, a service configurator can help clients build their personalized insurance plans. It can cover aspects like health, property, or travel insurance based on individual risk factors and preferences. 

Service configurator example

Which product configuration model is right for my business?

Deciding on the right product configurator for your business can seem overwhelming. The market is filled with various options, each with specific features and functionalities. 

Unlike software with standardized categories, configurators don’t adhere to a uniform set of features. They come in numerous forms and are used differently depending on business needs. 

Some are internal tools for creating BOMs, while others assist your sales staff. Many configurators serve as front-end, self-service platforms, aligning with the 75% of B2B buyers who prefer a rep-free sales experience.

In the upcoming table, we’ve compared different configurator types across various factors to assist in your decision-making.

Comparison of product configurator types

AspectSTO (Stock to Order)PTO (Pick to Order)CTO (Configure to Order)ATO (Assemble to Order)MTO (Make to Order)ETO (Engineer to Order)
Customization levelNoneLowMediumHighVery highExtreme
Lead timeShortestShortModerateModerate to longLongLongest
Inventory levelsHighModerateLow to moderateModerateLowVery low
Product complexityLowLow to mediumMedium to highHighHigh to very highVery high
Demand forecastingStableRelatively stableVariableVariableHighly variableProject-based
Production processMass productionMass customizationFlexible manufacturingAssembly lineJob shopProject-based
Customer involvementMinimalLowModerateModerate to highHighVery high
FlexibilityLowModerateHighHighVery highExtremely high

→ Learn more: Product Configurator Benefits and ROI: Is It Worth the Investment?

Now, let’s take a closer look at the two top deciding factors:

Customization level

The degree of customization you want to offer aligns with your production capabilities and market demand. Do you need a simple Select-to-Order system, or does your product require advanced options of a Configure-to-Order model?

Accordingly, the chart below illustrates the complexity of customization levels for different product configuration types.

chart of different cofigurator types

Looking at the individual types based on their customization levels, we can class the configurators as follows:

Low complexity configurators  

  • STO configurator (Select-to-Order)
  • PTO configurator (Pick-to-Order)
  • CTO configurator (Configure-to-Order)

Medium complexity configurators  

  • ATO configurator (Assemble-to-Order)

High complexity configurators  

  • MTO configurator (Make-to-Order)
  • ETO configurator (Engineer-to-Order)

Lead time

Lead time involves the duration from configuring a product to its delivery. Some configurations allow for quick turnaround with pre-defined product variants, while others, offering extensive customization, might lead to longer lead times. 

The chart below shows how different product configuration types relate to various lead times.

Lead time product configurator chart

Based on our analysis, it’s evident that Select-to-Order and Pick-to-Order configurators generally offer the quickest lead times. This is due to their simpler customization processes. On the other hand, Make-to-Order and Engineer-to-Order configurators tend to have longer lead times, reflecting the more complex and detailed customization involved.

Final thoughts

No matter the industry, tailor-developed configurators can give your company a competitive advantage, boosting efficiency of your sales teams. 

Choosing the best product configuration tool is a strategic decision that can significantly impact your customers’ satisfaction and your overall success. The decision hinges on understanding the nature of your business, the characteristics of your products, and the needs of your customers.

Ready to take on the customer-centric approach with a digital tool your staff and clients expect?

We’re experts in building product configurator software for various industries. 

Contact us to find out what we can do for your business.

→ Further reading: How to Build a Product Configurator?