HomeDesign PatternUnderstand the Abstract Factory Pattern in 4 steps

Understand the Abstract Factory Pattern in 4 steps

This article contains details on the working of yet another creational design pattern, that allows us to create a family of products in a flexible and extensible manner.

What is the Abstract Factory Pattern?

In the previous article, we learned the factory method pattern. We saw how we were able to model the variants of the F-16 using the factory method. But there are numerous airplanes other than F-16 that we’ll need to represent. Say the client buys a Boeing-747 for the CEO to travel and now wants your software to provide support for this new type of aircraft.
The abstract factory pattern solves the problem of creating families of related products. For instance, F-16 needs an engine, a cockpit, and wings. The Boeing-747 would require the same set of parts but they would be specific to Boeing. Any airplane would require these three related parts but the parts will be plane and vendor-specific. Can you see a pattern emerge here? We need a framework for creating the related parts for each airplane, a family of parts for the F-16, a family of parts for the Boeing-747 so on and so forth.
Formally, the abstract factory pattern is defined as defining an interface to create families of related or dependent objects without specifying their concrete classes.

Abstract Factory Pattern

An abstract factory can be thought of as a super factor or a factory of factories. The pattern achieves the creation of a family of products without revealing concrete classes to the client. Let’s consider an example. Say, you are creating a simulation software for the aviation industry and need to represent different aircraft as objects. But before you represent an aircraft, you also need to represent the different pieces of an aircraft as objects. For now let’s pick three: the cockpit, the wings, and the engine. Now say the first aircraft you want to represent is the mighty F-16. You’ll probably write three classes one for each piece specific to the F-16. In your code you’ll likely consume the just created three classes as follows:

public void main() {

F16Cockpit f16Cockpit = new F16Cockpit();
F16Engine f16Engine = new F16Engine();
F16Wings f16Wings = new F16Wings();
List<F16Engine> engines = new ArrayList<>();
engines.add(f16Engine);
for (F16Engine engine : engines) {
engine.start();
}
}

This innocuous looking snippet can cause severe headaches down the road if your simulation software takes off and you need to expand it to other aircraft. Below is a list of what is wrong with the above snippet:

  • The concrete classes for the three parts have been directly exposed to the consumer.
  • F-16 has several variants with different engines and say in future if you want to return engine object matching to the variant, you’ll need to subclass F16Engine class and that would necessitate a change in the consumer snippet too.
  • The List in the code snippet is parametrized with a concrete class, in future if you add another aircraft engine object then the new engine can’t be added to the list, even though engines for all aircraft are somewhat similar.

We’ll fix these issues one by one and see how the abstract factory pattern would emerge.

public interface IEngine {
	void start();
}

public class F16Engine implements IEngine {
	@Override
	public void start() {
		System.out.println("F16 engine on");
	}
}

With the above change see how the corresponding consumer code changes

	public void main() {
		IEngine f16Engine = new F16Engine();
		List<IEngine> engines = new ArrayList<>();
		engines.add(f16Engine);
		for (IEngine engine : engines) {
			engine.start();
		}
	}

Suddenly the consumer code is free of the implementation details of what class implements the F-16 engine and works with an interface. However, we would still like to hide the new F16Engine() part of the code. We don’t want the consumer to know what class we are instantiating. This is discussed next.

Creating a factory

Instead of new-ing up objects in client code, we’ll have a class responsible for manufacturing the requested objects and returning them to the client We’ll call this class F16Factory since it can create the various parts of the F16 aircraft and deliver them to the requesting client. The class would take the following shape.

public class F16Factory {
	public IEngine createEngine() {
		return new F16Engine();
	}

	public IWings createWings() {
		return new F16Wings();
	}

	public ICockpit createCockpit() {
		return new F16Cockpit();
	}
}

Suppose we pass in the F16Factory object in the constructor to the client code and it would now create objects like so:

public void main(F16Factory f16Factory) {
		IEngine f16Engine = f16Factory.createEngine();
		List<IEngine> engines = new ArrayList<>();
		engines.add(f16Engine);
		for (IEngine engine : engines) {
			engine.start();
		}
	}

Note how this setup allows us the freedom to change the concrete class representing the F16Engine as long as it commits to the IEngine interface. We can rename, enhance or modify our class without causing a breaking change in the client. Also note that by just differing the factory class passed into the client constructor, we are able to provide the client with the same parts for a completely new aircraft. This is discussed next.

Factory of Factories

Wouldn’t it be great if we could use the same client snippet for other aircraft such as Boeing747 or a Russian MiG-29? If we could have all the factories being passed into the client agree to implement the createEngine() method, then the client code will keep working for all kinds of aircraft factories. But all the factories must commit to a common interface whose methods they’ll implement and this common interface will be the abstract factory.

Implementation of the abstract factory

Let’s start with an interface that would define the methods the factories for different aircraft would need to implement. The client code is written against the abstract factory but composed at runtime with a concrete factory.

public interface IAircraftFactory {
IEngine createEngine();
IWings createWings();
ICockpit createCockpit();
}

Note that we mean a Java abstract class or a Java interface when referring to “interface”. In this instance, we could have used an abstract class if there were a default implementation for any of the products. The create methods don’t return concrete products rather interfaces to decouple the factory consumers from the concrete implementation of parts.
The formal definition of the abstract factory pattern says abstract factory pattern defines an interface for creating families of related products without specifying the concrete classes. Here the IAircraftFactory is that interface in the formal definition and notes how its create methods are not returning concrete parts but rather interfaces that’ll be implemented by the concrete parts’ classes.

Next let’s define our factories for the two aircraft.

public class F16Factory implements IAircraftFactory {
	@Override
	public IEngine createEngine() {
		return new F16Engine();
	}

	@Override
	public IWings createWings() {
		return new F16Wings();
	}

	@Override
	public ICockpit createCockpit() {
		return new F16Cockpit();
	}
}

public class Boeing747Factory implements IAircraftFactory {
	@Override
	public IEngine createEngine() {
		return new Boeing747Engine();
	}

	@Override
	public IWings createWings() {
		return new Boeing747Wings();
	}

	@Override
	public ICockpit createCockpit() {
		return new Boeing747Cockpit();
	}
}

The concrete factories will be responsible for creating F-16 or Boeing specific engine, cockpit and wings. Each part has a corresponding product interface that we don’t list for brevity’s sake. The interfaces representing the parts would be:

  • IEngine
  • ICockpit
  • IWings

All the create methods are actually factory methods that have been overridden. Indeed, the factory method pattern is utilized when implementing the abstract factory pattern. For the sake of brevity, we have skipped listing the concrete classes for engine, wings, and cockpit.

In the previous article, we created a class for F-16 which included a public method fly() . This method internally invoked the makeF16() method and after the aircraft was manufactured, it invoked the taxi() method before printing a fly statement. In our scenario, all aircrafts are expected to follow the same pattern. They first get manufactured, then taxi on the runway and then fly away. We can thus create a class for an aircraft that does these three tasks. Note, how we aren’t creating separate classes to represent the two aircraft i.e. the F-16 and Boeing-747 rather a single Aircraft class that can represent both.

// Incomplete skeleton of the class.
public class Aircraft {
	IEngine engine;
	ICockpit cockpit;
	IWings wings;

	protected Aircraft makeAircraft() {
//TODO: provide implementation
	}

	private void taxi() {

		System.out.println("Taxing on runway");
	}

	public void fly() {
		Aircraft aircraft = makeAircraft();
		aircraft.taxi();
		System.out.println("Flying");
	}
}

For now, we’ll keep the make aircraft method empty. Let’s first see how a client will request F-16 and Boeing-747 objects.

public class Client {
	public void main() {
// Instantiate a concrete factory for F-16
		F16Factory f16Factory = new F16Factory();
// Instantiate a concrete factory for Boeing-747
		Boeing747Factory boeing747Factory = new Boeing747Factory();
// Lets create a list of all our airplanes
		Collection<Aircraft> myPlanes = new ArrayList<>();
// Create a new F-16 by passing in the f16 factory
		myPlanes.add(new Aircraft(f16Factory));
// Create a new Boeing-747 by passing in the boeing factory
		myPlanes.add(new Aircraft(boeing747Factory));
// Fly all your planes
		for (Aircraft aircraft : myPlanes) {
			aircraft.fly();
		}
	}
}

We’ll need to add a constructor to our Aircraft class, which will store the passed-in factory object and create the aircraft parts using the factory. Just by composing the aircraft object with a different factory we are able to get a different aircraft. The complete version of the aircraft class would look like below:

public class Aircraft {
	IEngine engine;
	ICockpit cockpit;
	IWings wings;
	IAircraftFactory factory;

	public Aircraft(IAircraftFactory factory) {
		this.factory = factory;
	}

	protected Aircraft makeAircraft() {
		engine = factory.createEngine();
		cockpit = factory.createCockpit();
		wings = factory.createWings();
		return this;
	}

	private void taxi() {
		System.out.println("Taxing on runway");
	}

	public void fly() {
		Aircraft aircraft = makeAircraft();
		aircraft.taxi();
		System.out.println("Flying");
	}
}

The client just needs to instantiate the right factory and pass it in. The consumer or client of the factory is the Aircraft class. We could have created an interface IAircraft to represent all the aircraft that the class Aircraft in turn would implement but for our limited example it’s not necessary.

The resulting code is easily extensible and flexible.

To tie our current example with the example discussed in the factory method pattern lesson, we have the option of either subclassing the F16Factory further to create factories for the A and B variants of F-16. We could also parametrize the existing F16Factory factory to take in an enum specifying the variant model and accordingly return the right part in a switch statement.

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