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Simplifying Complexity-Again PUBLIC ACCESS

No Matter How Many Hands are on the Job, Technology Aims to Keep the Work Flowing.

[+] Author Notes

Alan S. Brown a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering magazine is a freelance technical writer based in Day ton. N.J.

Mechanical Engineering 126(03), 43-45 (Mar 01, 2004) (3 pages) doi:10.1115/1.2004-MAR-5

This article focuses on the advantages of technology over manual intervention. Products are made to order in a process that spawns a stream of changes to CAD drawings, technical specifications, bills of materials, assembly instructions, and other documents. The secret of Swagelok’s success is workflow software, which helps automate and manage repetitive business processes, such as engineering change orders, document revision, review, and design release. It lets a computer automatically route drawings and documents to every person who needs them. Workflow software creates a single system for gathering all of the necessary history, measurements, and models. Swagelok and Evernham use workflow software to control and track the movement of information. Many larger companies, on the other hand, have used workflow software to move data automatically among applications. Such complex workflows are usually part of a larger product lifecycle management solution.

As a major manufacturer of industrial valves, Swagelok Co. of Solon, Ohio, is used to change orders. While it stocks 8,000 of its most popular valves, its complete product line spans more than 100,000 unique configurations. Products are made to order, in a process that spawns a stream of changes to CAD drawings, technical specifications, bills of materials, assembly instructions, and other documents.

Last year alone, Swagelok's engineers processed more than 8,000 changes. According to the company, they were able to handle 300 percent more engineering changes and use 30 percent fewer work hours than in the past. Swagelok said it was able to redeploy employees to other tasks.

The company also reduced lead times for made-to-order products by as much as 70 percent, equivalent to five to 10 days, depending on the project.

The secret of Swagelok's success: workflow software, which helps automate and manage repetitive business processes, such as engineering change orders, document revision, review, and design release. It lets a computer automatically route drawings and documents to every person who needs them.

"It provides the framework-the business rules, steps, and approvals-and defines who gets what when," said senior consultant Peter Bilello of CIMData Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., product lifecycle management consulting firm. " If the rule is that a change that cost more than $1 million needs three signatures, it automatically routes the documents to the three groups that have to sign off on it."

A Nascar team, Evernham Motorsports, is phasing in workflow software to manage the complex engineering information it needs for continual adjustments to 40 race cars.

Grahic Jump LocationA Nascar team, Evernham Motorsports, is phasing in workflow software to manage the complex engineering information it needs for continual adjustments to 40 race cars.

James McKinney is product data management marketing manager for IBM PLM Americas in White Plains, N.Y. IBM PLM markets the software that Swagelok uses, SmarTeam Workflow, developed by SmarTeam Corp. Ltd. of Kfar Saba, Israel.

"In the past, project information moved from desk to desk in manila folders, and it was slow, subject to errors, and created lots of rework," McKinney said. "You'd look at the proposed change. Maybe an essential piece of paper fell out, or you were sent something you didn't fully understand. So you did the best you could, and sometimes you had to go back and change it."

Moreover, a manila fold er rarely left the engineering office until it was complete. Engineers didn't like to share half-finished projects. Nor did they enjoy the extra work involved in circulating and tracking information outside their department.

"What happened then," McKinney said, "is that the marketing manager sees this design and wants to change the look. The manufacturing engineer says the sheet metal's too close to the edge to bend. Purchasing can't source the fasteners fast enough. These are all expensive changes, especially if you've already invested $1 million in tooling."

McKinney argues that, since companies commit to 75 to 80 percent of their product costs during design, it makes sense to make those changes as early in the process as possible. With digital files and workflow software to route them to the right people, it has become easier than ever before to share facts and ideas. Getting everyone to commit to changes early can save big money down the road.

Swagelok had other aims when it first tested the digital waters in 1999. At the time, it consisted of five independent companies, each with its own brands, engineering process, and supply chain. "We wanted to bring everything under one roof to improve our use of technology and streamline our processes to respond better to customer requests:' said Jim Stewart, engineering systems manager.

That began with standardizing on a single 3-D modeling tool, Solid Works, and converting its 2-D drawings into what would eventually become a library of 25,000 CAD models that it could adapt to meet customer specifications.

"Most engineers want to be creative. They don't want

Within six months, Swagelok's forward charge had bogged down in document management. "The biggest problems were in new product development, where we had multiple versions of the same manufacturing print," said Mike Powell, the company's director of continuous improvement. "We were having trouble with storage, retrieval, and revision controls."

Most companies resolved similar issues with product data management software, which stores documents and controls check-in, check-out, revision, and security. Swagelok, however, decided to include newly emerging workflow software. It chose SmarTeam because it has links to SolidWorks.

The goal, Stewart said, was not just to control documents, but also to create a consistent set of corporate processes that would do away with divisional differences. Starting with the product development group's 40 members, Swagelok used the software to formalize the company's best practices.

"We wanted to minimize up-front project planning by using Workflow to define who needed to do what and when," Stewart said. Instead of meeting to organize and monitor each project, the software would allocate and track tasks automatically. Instead of pushing every project through one group of document-control clerks, the software let Swagelok disperse control over change management throughout the organization to improve flow.

According to Stewart, the result was a five-to 10-day reduction-an average of 70 percent-in the time it took to ready an order for manufacture. The system also helped Swagelok make better decisions.

"Someone in assembly might think we're over-packaging a valve, but someone else rnight see a need for it when shipping over longer distances," Stewart said. "By sharing the information through SmarTeam Workflow, the decision is made by the entire organization rather than a single person sitting in the corner."

Swagelok has expanded the use of SmarTeam to cover other types of information, such as product drawings, specifications, and business process documentation.

Swagelok sorts thousands of documents among engineers throughout Ohio. Yet smaller companies say they have benefited from workflow software. One is Evernham. Motorsports LLC, a Dodge-sponsored Nascar race team in Statesville, N.C.

"We basically design, build, and manufacture our own race cars from the ground up," said Eric Warren, the technical director. The company's engineers are constantly sprinting to optimize its 40 cars for different tracks as well as for research. "Our time frame is really rapid, changing major systems like engines and transmissions every two or three weeks," he said.

In the past, Nascar crew chiefs and machinists made those changes at the track. Evernham, however, is part of a new generation of racing teams led by engineers applying scientific methods. Warren has begun to phase in workflow software to rapidly assess and improve parts. This starts with logging part miles, critical measurements, and vehicle maintenance after each race.

"We already had a maintenance log and it worked fine, but we wanted to compare part history and critical measurements taken after the race with our 3-D models and see what's different," Warren related. "We want to analyze each part to take out as much weight as possible, so our cars go faster and longer. For some parts, we want only enough weight to make it to the end of the race."

Workflow software creates a single system for gathering all of the necessary history, measurements, and models. "There's a lot less chaos in our system now," Warren said. He admitted, however, that crews and machinists have yet to fully embrace the new system. "They won't buy into it until they see it win on the racetrack:' he said.

Swagelok and Evernham use workflow software to control and track the movement of information. Many larger companies, on the other hand, have used workflow software to move data automatically among applications.

Such complex workflows are usually part of a larger product lifecycle management solution. PLM software mediates the flow of information among engineering, manufacturing, purchasing, marketing, customer service, accounting, and other databases and applications. It lets users view data in the context in which they use it: Engineers examine CAD drawings, purchasers peruse parts lists, and marketers mark up product features and specifications.

"We want to capture the whole development process," said Jonathan Gable, senior director of product management for PLM and workflow developer MatrixOne Inc. of Westford, Mass. In the automotive industry, a key market for MatrixOne, that means coordinating mechanical, electrical, and software development among different groups using different terminologies and languages in North America, Europe, and Asia. Workflow software "is the glue that brings all the other processes together," he said.

Companies often set up MatrixOne to automatically move data between systems as work progresses. The most common example, says Gable, is the release of an engineering bill of materials. The event triggers the system to send the data to corporate enterprise resource planning software. The system then notifies employees and business partners by sending an e-mail notice that contains a link to the company's integrated PLM database.

to spend their time copying and taxing documents."

Proctor & Gamble Co. in Cincinnati implemented MatrixOne workflow software to take advantage of its new trimmed-down global specifications database. The system guided designers to choose from a limited palette of previously approved raw materials. This not only reduced engineering change cycle times, but saved the company hundreds of millions of dollars in raw materials costs by enabling it to buy fewer, more standardized products.

Jay Muelhoefer is director of product marketing for Windchill, the workflow and collaboration software developed by PTC of Needham, Mass. According to Muellioefer, "Workflow engines excel with long-term, data-intensive work processes that contain activities that spawn other events and information that needs to go to other people."

In addition to automating data flow, workflow applications like Windchill use conditional logic to control parallel work processes that diverge and later converge, such as work on subsystems of a large component.

Workflow software provides a fair amount of out-of-the-box functionality. This starts with predefined templates of common workflows, such as methods of handling engineering change orders and product releases. Administrators can drag and drop documents into the template, or modify the system to better reflect their own work processes.

They can instruct the system not to distribute information unless all linked documents are attached. This ensures that all relevant information about a change arrives together.

Most workflow systems send notifications through Microsoft Outlook, Lotus Notes, or their own alert systems. Most transmit secure information to partners over the Internet. They also provide such tools as visualization software, which enables users to zoom, pan, rotate, and mark up 3-D CAD models even if they cannot change them.

In addition, workt1ow systems include administration tools that let managers monitor project status, analyze common delays in order to improve the process, and determine which users slow down the system.

IBM's McKinney estimates the cost at roughly $4,000 per engineering workstation and less than half that for managers who comment or approve work, but do not make actual engineering changes.

SmarTeam's product manager, Eyal Herman, said it typically takes less than three months for companies with a few hundred users to test and launch the company's software.

For those companies with established, well-defined engineering processes, the transition is fairly straightforward. To others, the change to a more regimented workflow comes as a culture shock.

This can lead to resistance. Many engineers are happy with how they already manage work-order changes. Some may not think corporate standards are an improvement. Others may not trust the software, or find it too inflexible for processes that may have to change on a dime to take advantage of new solutions. These days, engineers may see workflow software's promise of doing more with less as a prelude to downsizing.

Others fear the transparency workflow software creates. Not every engineer Wants management looking over his or her shoulder. "They feel more exposed," Herman said. "They might have to give up some of their position or power within the organization. Without workflow software, they could put the brakes on a project. Now, because the environment is more transparent, it's easier to track what they're doing."

Yet people eventually adjust. As CIMData's Bilello noted, "Most engineers want to be creative. They don't want to spend their time copying and faxing documents."

This is an age in which collaboration across departments, divisions, supply chains, and oceans is fast becoming the norm. It is happening because getting everyone on board early yields better, less costly, and more readily accepted products.

Collaboration also adds complexity. As more people climb aboard the product introduction process, the number of interactions grows geometrically-and so do the demands on designers and engineers.

When all is said and done, workflow software-like technology to manage projects and tame finances-is just the latest round in corporate efforts to simplify complexity.

Copyright © 2004 by ASME
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