Manufacturing AUTOMATION

On the record: Managing product and process records with PLM

May 31, 2011
By Chuck Cimalore

Product life cycle management (PLM) systems provide a central location to manage all of the information associated to a product. These systems automate processes and provide tracking capabilities to easily capture and resolve issues. PLM has traditionally focused on engineering and product data management processes; however, as it has evolved and its functionality has grown to encompass more information management across an organization, there is an obvious fit for PLM to support downstream processes – such as manufacturing process management (MPM) and bill of material (BOM) routing – to further streamline information synchronization and drive down manufacturing costs.

MPM defines how a product is to be manufactured and usually involves the process of segmenting a product BOM into a series of operations and sequences. These sequences/routings describe how a particular assembly process is to be performed and which materials are consumed by each step in the process. Today, many manufacturers create and manage routing information in enterprise resource planning (ERP) or material requirement planning (MRP) systems, while others use custom applications or spreadsheets. The majority of these legacy systems lack the ability to link the routing data to engineering information, such as CAD drawings, behavioral parameters and vendor specifications/datasheets. This information is typically stored in a PLM system. In addition, the PLM system is where BOMs are created and managed. The natural evolution is to have the PLM system provide the BOM routing functionality to define test and assembly operations and sequences in order to link these processes back to the engineering data. This can provide test and assembly personnel with the ability to easily view documents, drawings and pictures directly from the PLM vault. Using PLM as the source for BOM routing also offers the ability to validate all engineering change orders (ECOs) and new BOM revisions with the work instructions.

Moreover, manufacturers have begun using graphical depictions (photos, images and drawings) to further describe complex test and assembly procedures, and to assist with language barrier and translation issues. PLM allows manufacturers to associate documents and images with manufacturing procedures. The ability to view a picture of a particular procedure along with (or in lieu of) written instructions – a capability not commonly available in legacy systems – can help eliminate mistakes and ensure a higher level of quality. Because PLM manages information electronically, paper-based, error-prone processes can be eliminated to help drive down manufacturing costs.

Integrating PLM with ERP/MRP
Even with PLM managing BOM routing, integration between PLM and ERP/MRP is still important to effectively manage routings because cost and timeline information is driven from the ERP/MRP systems. Most companies with both PLM and ERP/MRP systems in place have established an integration process, which passes new and updated BOMs and revisions from PLM to ERP/MRP. Passing routing information is a simple extension of that integration and allows both systems to contain synchronized BOM and routing information. The result is a PLM system that provides the manufacturing group with all of the necessary data to successfully build and test products, and an ERP system that contains automatically generated and more accurate routing information to track costs and delivery dates.


Case in point
A premier supplier of high power amplifiers for satellite communications had a PLM system in place to automate paper processes for faster, more accurate product development. As the master record for all product data – including BOMs, specifications, ECOs and quality processes – managing BOM routing within their PLM environment was a natural extension of their BOM management processes.  

Managing routings within PLM enabled the company to easily connect the engineering BOM with the manufacturing BOM and eliminate the prior disconnect they experienced whenever there was a change. This also provided them with the ability to link the 2D and 3D CAD design drawings, and capture images of assembly steps (via a digital camera) with the routing data. Personnel on the shop floor can now display the routing information on touchscreen terminals loaded only with a browser and 3D CAD viewer, and view all assembly and test information, a graphical depiction (digital images), as well as a 3D model of the products they are working with. Since PLM also provides their quality/CAPA tracking, assembly and test issues can be raised automatically, along with the associated offending product/material from these same terminals.

Due to the enhanced routing data, the company has realized radically fewer manufacturing (assembly and test) issues and reduced overall manufacturing timeframes.

As enterprise applications evolve, it is important to take a step back and evaluate what processes can be improved upon and where certain data should be managed in order to most effectively support a manufacturer’s needs. In this case, recognizing that the functionality offered by PLM can create a better environment and improve overall processes for managing BOM routing, and understanding the benefits of creating and maintaining an integrated environment with the systems that traditionally manage these processes, gives manufacturers an opportunity to enhance their product design and manufacturing practices. The ultimate benefits are eliminating inefficiencies, driving down manufacturing costs and maintaining a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

Chuck Cimalore is the CTO at Omnify Software, a provider of business-ready, product life cycle and change management solutions designed to meet the needs of manufacturers.

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