This article reviews how information systems can keep track of multitudes of design changes and avoid problems in the issuing of bills of materials. Sometimes, as in the automaker’s case, engineers find a novel way to make available software perform a second job. The DaimlerChrysler technology fitted a second need, which engineers did not even know they had until they put two and two together: a system that kept track of documents could keep track of equipment, too. As information technology people layer and link a company’s various software systems, they create a full-blown digital umbrella that works for the company. Most companies layer their technology systems, first implementing one, then another, and then finding a way to link the two. In other words, companies first identify a need that technology can fill, then purchase new technology or find new uses for what they have, as in DaimlerChrysler’s case.
Information systems can also keep track of multitudes of design changes and avoid problems in the issuing of bills of materials.
Sometimes, as in the automaker’s case, engineers find a novel way to make available software perform a second job.
The DaimlerChrysler technology fitted a second need, which engineers didn’t even know they had until they put two and two together: A system that kept track of documents could keep track of equipment, too.
As information technology people layer and link a company’s various software systems, they create a full-blown digital umbrella that works for the company. Often, it includes a product data management system and, of course, a CAD system. Other elements are added and tweaked as needed. Still, it all adds up to an enterprise system tailored for each unique engineering operation.
Less than three years ago, engineers at Daimler-Chryslers advanced manufacturing engineering group kept paper files for the new vehicles they planned and for the new-vehicle plants they configured. The advanced manufacturing group in Auburn Hills, Mich., provides assembly, stamping, powertrain, paint, and energy management services for Daimler-Chryslers vehicles.
“Before 2000, we were all paper-based,” said Bob Manoni, who helps plan the technology that the advanced manufacturing group needs. “We had no electronic files. Engineers kept their own revisions.” He helped organize the changeover to the digital document-management system called ProjectWise, from Bentley Systems of Exton, Pa. Manoni spoke at a Bentley user’s conference in Baltimore during May. ProjectWise gives engineering departments a way to consolidate decentralized engineering information so that all members of a project team have access to the right data.
The DaimlerChrysler group uses AutoCAD 2002 from Autodesk of San Rafael, Calif., for CAD. This program is supplemented by Microstation, also from Bentley.
“We’d found out our documents look very different,” Manoni said. “We formatted CAD documents so they look the same and can be managed. If a customer used Microstation or AutoCAD to make a design, you could call up either one.”
Advanced manufacturing’s suppliers also must cleave to the standards. Fourteen new vehicle programs within the advanced management group now use the document-management software, which also stores and tracks requests for quotes and information about ISO standards, among other things. “We also have communications documents in there so everyone knows what they’re doing,” Manoni said. “Literally thousands of documents make up the new-vehicle program. Of course, someone has to manage all this or it just goes to pot.”
Manoni himself is the wizard behind the curtain. He makes sure that master copies of every document created by a group member go into the system. Relevant corporate documents go into the system, too.
“Now we’ll receive projects at the beginning of the cycle,” Manoni said of the document-management technology. “And the projects will flow through to the end. They won’t be loaded in at the end.”
Naturally, this makes things easier on engineers. They can search for a design revision, for example, and can expect to find it in the system. They don’t have to comb through paper files looking for what they need, or ask individual engineers if they remember revising a design.
Checking Out Robots
Of course, because they’re engineers, the people the system was created to help couldn’t leave it alone. They monkeyed with it to get it just right. By this time, some group members, thinking outside the box, found a second use for ProjectWise.
Up through the late 1980s, the equipment used at one advanced manufacturing plant—from heavy-duty robots to the smallest conveyor parts—could never be used by another plant because it wasn’t easily retrofitted. Even though that changed in the past decade—as the group relied more on programmable robots and robotics that could be tailored to each assembly line—reusing the equipment didn’t follow. No one thought to set up a way to track equipment to see what was available and to match it with plants that might need a particular device.
Although the advanced manufacturing group oversees large purchases—like an entire assembly line—the plants themselves buy replacement parts. There was no centralized database that tracked components, such as welding guns, control cabinets, transformers, and robots. One assembly line might include 400 separate items, Manoni said.
“It used to be that equipment goes into the plants and never comes out,” he said. “The plants had to tell us what they had available. And what our financing and purchasing department calls certain pieces of equipment is all the way different from what we call them. “We had no capability to inventory our assets for real location,” he said.
What the group needed was a way to circulate parts. Engineers could check out available equipment and check it back in when it wasn’t needed as part of a line. Of course, such a system had to closely monitor a part’s location and be updated regularly. Enter ProjectWise. If it can keep track of paper, it can certainly keep track of metal and steel, Manoni’s team reasoned.
Because they’re engineers, the people the system was created to help just couldn’t leave it alone. They monkeyed with it to get it just right.
With lines costing more than $1 million—for instance, one of the groups underbody lines carries a S150 million price tag—an inventory management tool might just save the group thousands of dollars. Or more. As it turned out, the asset management tool saved money in the millions.
“The problem was that plant personnel didn’t want to give up their equipment,” Manoni said.
They were afraid they’d never get it back. But the lending-library approach assuages their fears. Now, rather than assigning an entire assembly line one inventory number, group managers break out the line by components, each of which gets its own inventory number used for tracking. Each time the group sets up a new-vehicle line, members scan the assembly line for reusable parts and enter those part numbers into the management technology. Each part is color-coded in the system. A red-coded part means that it isn’t available for reuse. Many components, however, are yellow-coded, meaning they can be reused elsewhere, even on a different type of assembly line. “A stamping guy can use the same assets as the assembly guy,” Manoni said.
The part’s location is included in the tracking system along with the date it’ll be available. Anyone who looks up a part will also see the name of a person to contact at the plant who knows about the part. Pictures can be included.
“After that’s entered, let’s go shopping,” Manoni said.
Shoppers can reserve any part they like, pending approval from their supervisors. Parts stored in the system include body shop components like robots, building materials, construction materials, and paint. Components from 33 assembly lines, eight stamping lines, and 10 powertrain lines are compiled in the system.
In its first six months, engineers used the asset management tool to reallocate about $500 million in equipment among new-vehicle program plants. That’s equipment that might otherwise have been purchased rather than reused—money that would have come from the new-vehicle program’s capital fund.
In the future, Manoni wants to identify surplus assets at every advanced manufacturing plant. He also wants to itemize smaller parts. The asset management tool was tried first at the group’s larger plants, cataloging mainly big pieces of equipment, he said.
“We also want to add equipment that’s running today, but could be reused later,” he said.
Each Piece Has to Fit
Most companies layer their technology systems, first implementing one, then another, then finding a way to link the two. In other words, companies first identify a need that technology can fill, then purchase new technology or find new uses for what they have, as in DaimlerChrysler's case.
The problem is ensuring that each piece of the technology is integral to the overall system, and that all the pieces fit together. It’s hard to keep a vision in mind for the entire company when managers are looking at pieces of technology individually. Sort of like the parable about the blind men who declare an elephant short and stubby or long and winding, depending on whether they’ve touched the elephant’s legs or trunk. One part of completing an overall technology picture is making sure individual systems can work together.
For example, Gamesa, an industrial group in Minano Mayor, Spain, which makes assemblies like fuselages, wings, landing-gear doors, and interiors for commuter aircraft and helicopters, also needed a way to track design changes. Some assemblies have about 2,500 parts. “Keeping track of these changes when each of them could create interferences or other problems was a nightmare that led to large numbers of design errors,” said Jose Ignacio Uriarte, manager of project management and scheduling.
The company went with a product data management system called Teamcenter from EDS of Plano, Texas—but not before making sure the system would work with the company’s Catia CAD system from Dassault Systemes in Paris and its expensive enterprise resource planning system from Baan of Barneveld in the Netherlands.
Before PDM systems, mechanical engineers often gave manufacturing engineers the blueprints for the part they developed and let manufacturing develop a bill of materials. This sometimes led to problems because manufacturing engineers could tweak the BOM and part design to suit manufacturing needs, said Richard Bourke, principal of Bourke Consulting in Pasadena, Calif.
Now, PDM systems and tracking systems like the one DaimlerChrysler uses ensure that BOMs are generated on the design side.
It’s through these technological changes, which a company might bring on and then supplement and build upon, that an overall technology umbrella goes up. Alhough an engineering company’s technology system is always changing, engineering managers need to see the parts add up to a whole. And they must keep that in mind as they choose new technology. They have to make sure new technology can integrate with existing technology. And they need to look for other, novel ways to use the new and the old.