This article elucidates how computerized product data management (PDM) systems allow designers to immediately be apprised of changes and communicate them to others in the manufacturing chain, and to discuss, via their computers, project status or glitches in the process. Datel of Mansfield, MA, has used a computer system called OnTrack to closely follow production of the power converters and other products it makes for use primarily in the telecommunications industry. The OnTrack system automatically sends its pertinent information gleaned from the PDM system to the planner. If the part is already being made without this latest revision, information about its current production is included in the file. This information can be a listing of the specific workstations on which each particular part has been made and how they have been configured for part production. Because many companies now include engineering departments when linking a company’s financial or manufacturing information, the engineers themselves have access to information used to run the business. Moreover, more information means that they have a greater say in decision making.
The mechanical engineer doesn't work in a vacuum, although some days, of course, many probably feel that way as they sit at their computers, focused on the screens. But engineers typically are one link in the long chain that makes up the manufacture of a product. The design and manufacture of any part-whether large or small-involves a series of orchestrated steps from the purchase of the raw material to the shipping of the final part. Those steps, called the production process, are pretty much the same, whether that part is sent off to become a piece of a larger machine or to be sold to an end user.
More and more, companies are tracking each step of this process electronically, often by use of a computerized product data management (PDM) system or manufacturing execution system (MES). PDM keeps track of a specific project, such as the design of a part; MES follows the product through its production cycle.
In many cases, networks that link the manufacturing process are supplemented with other tracking systems, such as a PDM system. PDM systems allow designers to immediately be apprised of changes and communicate them to others in the manufacturing chain, and to discuss, via their computers, project status or glitches in the process.
As companies turn to technology to streamline communication, design, and manufacture, many are finding that these tracking systems cut turnaround time, allow for quick changes in design and in the subsequent manufacturing process, help pinpoint where the product is in the manufacturing cycle, and assign proper responsibility for faulty parts.
For nearly three years, Datel of Mansfield, Mass., has used a computer system called OnTrack to closely follow production of the power converters and other products it makes for use primarily in the telecommunications industry. Datel's products include analog to digital converters, digital to analog converters, panel meters, power suppliers, and printed circuit boards. The company makes about 40,000 final assemblies of 1,600 different products each month. Obviously, employees face a challenge in determining exactly where a specific product is-whether still in the design stages or at some assembly point on the shop floor. That's where the tracking system comes in handy, said Sid Martin, Datel's manager of manufacturing.
Since bringing in the system, Datel has slashed paper use by 90 percent because managers previously kept track of products and production on paper rather than on computer. Also in those three years, the company's manufacturing process was made 20 percent more efficient.
The time it takes to manufacture parts has been slashed by more than half-from between 12 and 21 days to between three and eight days, Martin said.
The computer system takes the place of that lengthy paper trail Datel formerly maintained, Martin said. Part of the trail had included paperwork done during the design conceptualization stage-the point at which Datel engineers worked with customers to define product specifications. The trail also followed the purchase of raw materials and monitored the materials' movement step by step across the shop floor.
"When we finish a job, we have a lot of traceability issues," Martin said. "We maintain data for our customers because the quality requirements in the telecommunications market require 10 years worth of information on how the product was built, who worked on it, and when. All that used to be stored on paper, and now it's stored electronically within the system."
Making Changes to Parts
From an engineering standpoint, a tracking system keeps tabs on design changes to ensure that the most recent design is the one currently being produced. A customer, for example, may demand a revision to a product currently being made on the shop floor. With help from the tracking system, that revision can be made quickly, without the need to shut down the entire shop for a changeover, Martin said.
Should a customer demand a design change, as commonly happens, Martin said, the engineer quickly makes that revision to the assembly drawing. In order for this change to be carried out on the factory floor, the OnTrack system links all pertinent design documents, including the revision, for quick reference. The documents are found in the company's PDM system.
"In our case, those PDM documents are the schematic, the assembly, fabrication drawings, process procedures-which are what's written by manufacturing people on how to use the manufacturing equipment-and instructions to the machine operators," Martin said.
After one of Datel's 25 design engineers makes a design revision, he or she can alert the planner-the person who oversees and orchestrates the manufacturing process-that a design has been revised.
The OnTrack system automatically sends its pertinent information gleaned from the PDM system to the planner. If the part is already being made without this latest revision, information about its current production is included in the file. This information can be a listing of the specific workstations on which each particular part has been made an how they have been configured for part production.
Now the planner must decide whether to immediately stop production and re tool shop floor workstations to accommodate the design change, or whether to finish the current production cycle before retooling. Information gleaned from the tracking system plays a large role in that decision, Martin said.
"The system keeps track of all the tooling, so it knows the tooling changes that would go into making the revision," he said. "Before, supervisors had to be researching these tooling changes for every workstation , trying to figure out what the right tooling would be for the design. Now we can make a decision to stop production based on the amount of retooling it would entail."
Martin defined the tooling as anything from the fixtures to the stencils used to manufacture Datel's converters and other parts. These tools are present on every workstation, but are adapted from order to order, according to the design of each particular part.
The tracking system saves time spent away from the shop floor, as well. Each week, Datel's design and manufacturing departments meet to discuss design issues. The issues are kept track of via the PDM system, from Consensys of San Jose, Calif. As new products are developed, the two departments meet five times during what's called the phased release process. During those sessions, participants evaluate products to assure that designs will meet size requirements. They also address preproduction-run issues.
Martin attributed a smoother production process to the information that employees have about where products are in the design and manufacturing cycle. The smoother process gives them more time to spend working out potential production and design problems.
"It used to take us four hours each day just to figure out where the product was in the production cycle, what people were working on," Martin said. "Now, in the morning, in the time it takes us to bring up our computers, we know how many units we have in each workstation and what products are in each workstation. There's no need to go out onto the floor and search for products, so we can spend all that time solving problems.
"It took us a while to get used to that," he added. "It slashed my work week from 60 to 44 hours."
A method of tracking products serves another purpose, which would benefit a company with a large number of parts suppliers. If such a manufacturer put a product tracking system in place across its whole supply chain, the company could pinpoint exactly where a product flaw entered the system. It could then assign responsibility to that one supplier, according to Martin McGrath, vice president of marketing at Real World Technology in Mount Prospect, Ill. His company makes the OnTrack system used at Datel.
If an automotive company, for example, faced a recall due to a hose leak, the company could pinpoint the supplier that made the hose and, perhaps, recoup recall costs, McGrath said.
Keeping Costs in Line
Another tracking system, though of a different nature, is in place at Extreme Networks, a Santa Clara, Calif., maker of local-area-network switches and accessories. The company recently moved from printing its sales and financial reports on spreadsheets that were sent to employees to a Web-based financial reporting system.
With the new system, from Cognos of Ottawa, Ontario, executives use the company's internal intranet to send out charts and graphics that identify sales trends and financial goals, said Dan Miller, Extreme's corporate controller. Such a financial tracking system serves a specific purpose in the engineering department, he added.
"Engineers touch this system in the sense that, as they're designing products, they need to make sure they're continually monitoring the costs," Miller said. "There's a target price point that you're trying to get in the market, so there's a target design cost margin that you're aiming for."
A switch produced by Extreme Networks is made up of thousands of components . The companies that supply those components change their prices daily, depending on market variables, Miller said.
"That's why engineers need to be sure they're tracking toward their target as they design," he said. "They have the financial system up on their computer, so they can see the prices as they change each day. The development cycle for these switches is as long as a year, so you need to see how you're tracking cost-wise over time and compare that to current costs."
Before implementing the financial reporting software nearly one year ago, Extreme Networks followed these always-fluctuating supplier costs via the spreadsheets passed throughout the company, an inaccurate and slow process, Miller said.
With the year 2000 only days away, these companies, like everyone else, await verification that their computer systems will continue to operate in the new year, when the year 2000 bug is expected to freeze some computers. If the tracking systems don't work properly on January 1, the result may be no more than an inconvenience, a return to the old ways.
Datel has a contingency plan in place should its tracking system cease to function, although Martin expects no problems. Some staff members are more nervous about the issue than he is, he added. The company would fall back on its former, paper-based system should the computerized version fall victim to the millennium bug.
"The paper system, we estimate, will give us only 18 to 36 hours of production ability before we would have to shut down completely or lose key information about our product," Martin said. Meter 36 hours, information could' still be collected. "But it would be disjointed and not easily obtained, exactly how it was before we implemented the tracking system," he added.
"People say that Y2K will cause them not to have the information they need to run their businesses. I know what it's like to not have all the information needed to run a business effectively. I hope no one has to suffer through that in January 2000," Martin said.
Because many companies now include engineering departments when linking a company's financial or manufacturing information, the engineers themselves have access to information used to run the business. And more information means that they have a greater say in decision making.