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Bill of Materials: The Record of Choice PUBLIC ACCESS

Feeding Engineering Information from the BOM to other Systems isn't Easy, But it Can Be Profitable.

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Associate Editor

Mechanical Engineering 130(06), 40-42 (Jun 01, 2008) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2008-JUN-4

This paper describes features of a software that translates bill of materials (BOM) information into formats other systems can use readily. According to experts, an automated system can reduce operator error when moving numbers between software systems. The developers have entered a heretofore little-known software space, which lurks between the BOM and various company systems. In order to truly make use of BOM, many manufacturers must turn to third-party software that not only automates the transfer of data, but also translates information between systems. Third-party software, such as that from Logic Design Corp. of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, ties together manufacturing technologies. The software is particularly useful at engineer-to-order operations. The article also illustrates that the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system is a rich storehouse of information that can be analyzed from a number of angles to get an overall sense of company operations. Many companies rely on ERP information for important tasks such as scheduling manufacturing jobs and ordering parts. This is where tightly integrating BOM and ERP can be a boon to engineering companies.

Want to slash time spent programming manufacturing equipment with engineering-design specific? One way, according to a number of software developers, is to automate the communication of bill of materials information to your manufacturing floor. They say that, are treating the engineering bill of material as a central repository of data that informs systems companywide, manufacturers can break the common communication bottleneck between engineering and manufacturing, and maximize productivity. These developers have entered a heretofore little-known software space, which lurks between the BOM and variable company system.

"With intellectual assets managed on the engineering side, everything originates there," said Dave Sly, president of Proplanner in Ames, Iowa. His company makes software that automates the transfer of information from BOM to manufacturing and enterprise resource planning applications.

Like so many things, designating the BOM as the record of record-which appears in all other systems-is easier said than done. Problems include system interoperability. To truly make use of BOM, many manufacturers must turn to third-party software that not only automates the transfer of data, but also translates information between systems.

Take the case of a United States truck builder that recently began producing military vehicles that would see service in Iraq. The company spent six weeks programming the tooling systems so they could execute the engineering designs.

The reason that programming took so long was that it relied on time-consuming manual reentry, Sly said. To program the machines that would make tools and parts, engineers and shop-floor employees literally keyed engineering information from the bill of materials into manufacturing systems.

Like most small to midsize companies today, the truck maker couldn't automatically move information from the engineering bill of materials to manufacturing-floor programs or to the enterprise resource planning system that pulls together a company's across-the-board numbers, Sly said.

He estimates that 95 percent of small to midsize companies don't have this capability and at least one industry analyst agrees with that number. Instead, engineers or other employees manually reenter order numbers, assembly details, and other information from the BOM to the manufacturing and ERP systems.

The weeks-on-end timeframe was slashed for the truck maker to well under one hour when the company turned to software-from Proplanner that automatically fed vital engineering BOM information to its shop floor and ERP systems. Production programming time dropped from six weeks to 30 minutes, Sly said.

"From the BOM, we can define the process used to make the part, map the process to the tooling and the workplaces where that gets done, and generate the work instructions associated with that BOM delivered to those workers," Sly said.

An automated system like this also reduces operator error when moving numbers between software systems. The military truck is composed of about 4,000 parts and took about 25,000 process steps to manufacture, Sly said.

"When you move that amount of information manually, you're likely to make a mistake," he added.

Designating BOM as the central data warehouse gives engineering, manufacturing, and the front office a single point of shared information. But making sure all company systems can use that information properly is still another matter.

Third-party software, such as that from Logic Design Corp. of Pewaukee, Wis., ties together manufacturing technologies.

The company provides software that translates BOM information into formats other systems can use readily. The software is particularly useful at engineer-to-order operations, said Lars Hedman, Logic Design's president.

"In engineer-to-order, if you build a cabinet, you might build 500 different sizes, so your engineering department is trying to make all those different designs," Hedman said.

Moving that design information from the bill of materials to the shop floor in a usable format can be problematic. In the past, operators often referred to engineering information when hand-programming the G codes that would drive tooling machines. They built up libraries of codes that could be called upon, Hedman said.

In today's speeded-up environment, manufacturers have less time to hand-translate engineering information to formats that are usable on the shop floor. Programming G codes for multiple designs isn't exactly feasible. But even if time were available, such programming may not be doable. As more companies turn to new equipment like laser cutters and folders that rely on robotics much more than does the equipment of more, information can't be translated readily into G codes, Hedman said.

"For a job shop, if you're doing 10,000 of the same manually programming foldings, it isn't a big deal to program the cutter," Hedman said. "But for the engineered-to-order job shop running one individual part, it is." Although it's not a small company, Cooper Power Systems of Houston, which makes medium- and high-voltage electrical equipment, faced the myriad translation problems familiar to manufacturers worldwide. The company relied upon a half-million G code programs when stamping various parts.

"They'd have teams of people who would program machines," Hedman said.

When Cooper Power recently turned to laser cutting technology, it lost use of those 500,000 G code programs, which could not properly program the cutter, Hedman said. Laser cutters often require a CAM file, although some read directly from a drawing, or DFX, file. Logic Design software helped feed the DFX file directly from the BOM to the laser cutter, with no middleman required.

Cooper Power can now handle the information for as many as three million jobs in as few as two hours by automated translation of design information found on the BOM, according to Hedman.

Consider the enterprise resource planning system. That large- scale application integrates several of a company's data sources and processes them into a unified system. Engineering systems are simply another one of those sources.

The ERP system is a rich storehouse of information that can be analyzed from a number of angles to get an overall sense of company operations. Many companies rely on ERP information for important tasks like scheduling manufacturing jobs and ordering parts. T his is where tightly integrating BOM and ERP can be a boon to engineering companies, according to Ken Amann, director of research at CIMdata, a product lifecycle management research and analysis firm in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The product lifecycle management side of the world naturally overlapped with the ERP side because, while engineers create product structure and manage it in the bill of materials-which resides on the product lifecycle management system-the engineering information must be passed to the enterprise resource planning world for scheduling. ERP may also track materials.

All that information makes its way to the shop floor.

Information about materials and engineering processes is found on the bill of materials, which is why manufacturers include BOM information in enterprise systems. Although this is routinely done, it's rarely automated at small or midsize companies and much useful information can fall by the wayside, Sly said.

Yet the ERP system is more useful now than ever. In the past decade, ERP has been used to manage not just parts and finished products, but the manufacturing processes themselves, Sly said.

Take the military truck maker. That company uses engineering information to schedule factory-floor runs. To that end, employees manually reentered design information from the BOM into the company's ERP system.

"That company couldn't move an efficient assignment of tasks and assembly instructions from the BOM into the ERP," Sly said.

That is, until it turned to the software Sly sells.

Work instructions associated with the BOM include a map of manufacturing steps that will be used to create a part.

"We take those processes and send them both to the ERP system, automatically creating records for accounting and scheduling how that is to be made," Sly said.

The ERP system houses that information, as well as pertinent information about costs, warehoused parts, inventory, and manufacturing line operation. This data can be sliced, diced, and analyzed to help streamline plant operations.

"Let's say you tell the ERP system you want to ship this quantity of these models on this day," Sly said. "The ERP looks at how long it takes each step in the process for which you consume parts.

"So the system may tell you, if you want to ship something on Friday, you' ll need parts on Wednesday and there's a two-day lead time for parts, so you'll need to order them on Monday," Sly said.

The system also automatically orders all the parts and flags resource allocation problems for managers to see.

"Maybe on Wednesday all the parts will be there, but you'll have to do 32 hours of work on Wednesday to get everything done and you only have one welder for eight hours," Sly said. "The ERP flags the user that they have to adjust their schedule because they do n 't have enough welders."

To make those types of determinations, the ERP system needs to know how products are made so it can schedule when they can be made.

"The point we get to is that we're electronically reconciling the BOM and the bill of process with the ERP system like you'd reconcile your checkbook in Quicken," Sly said. "Mostly, it's a manual reconciliation process being done today, and it often misses things because people are in a hurry."

Amann agrees with Sly that about 90 percent of small to midsize companies rely on manual reentry to move BOM information into pertinent enterprise systems. While larger companies automate these functions through a product lifecycle management application, automation itself doesn't come without issue.

"BOM is the very first area where we saw integration of the PLM side of the ho use and the ERP side of the house," Amann said.

That integration began in the early 1990s, he added.

"But what's happened over time is we've expanded that level of integration," Amann said of the PLM world. "In the beginning, it was a one-way move from PLM into ERP and then we made that bidirectional, and then we expanded the information so it wasn't just product structure that made it over but also changed information. "Now we're tying these processes together so information flows as the business wants it to move as opposed to what technology wants," he added.

What that means is that each system manages change orders and workflow according to their separate processes. Consolidating and tracking workflow and change orders can get complicated.

So what does the future hold for the BOM, especially as integrated with shop-floor and ERP systems?

With the advent of service-oriented architecture, engineers may soon be able to make what Amann termed service- oriented calls to the ERP or PLM systems, or both.

"Like, for example, if you wanted to make a change and you needed information from both ERP or PLM systems and maybe from a supplier system, you could bring that all together, bring it up, and make a decision," he said. "That's in the future, but we're already working on stuff like this."

Copyright © 2008 by ASME
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