Streamline your operations: Big-picture PLM benefits for small manufacturers

Monday July 25, 2016
Written by Carl Smith, IMAGINiT Technologies
Jul. 25, 2016 - The advent of Cloud-based offerings for product lifecycle management (PLM) has reduced costs to the point where small manufacturers can afford to take advantage. Traditional PLM systems require a significant investment in IT infrastructure — making them complex and expensive — perhaps worthwhile for a large organization, but out of reach for most. With Cloud-based PLM tools, small manufacturers don’t have to buy, set up or maintain new computing infrastructure.

But don’t think of PLM as just a software system. Best practices in PLM integrate people, processes and technologies to create a systematic approach to all aspects of the manufacturing workflow. In fact, you probably already have some form of PLM in place via paper forms, emails, spreadsheets and maybe, a standalone quality management system. PLM systems can integrate with existing workflows you already have in place and act as a bridge between systems.

Here are four ways a PLM system can help your business run more efficiently.

1. Streamline operations
Formal PLM systems guide each aspect of manufacturing, from requirements gathering through build, all the way to disposal. PLM models the workflow across departments and systems and there is virtually no aspect of operations it can’t address. PLM, for example, can aggregate information about a particular part or assembly including bills of materials, drawings, product specifications, materials manufacturing schedules, orders, compliance and quality requirements — even suppliers and customers.

To get the most from the technology, it is important to take the time to document existing processes step-by-step. This is not an exercise focused just on engineering; it must involve sales, service, production, quality, procurement and engineering and identify points in processes that commonly lead to holdups or production problems. These often occur when a document stalls on someone’s desk or when an incorrect drawing makes it to the shop floor. Because PLM brings together what were once siloed systems, more automation is facilitated. For example, purchasing can be automatically notified to order more materials when a particular part is scheduled for manufacturing and the inventory of necessary materials is low. Manufacturing schedules can automatically update when new orders come in. Drawings and other specifications are automatically linked to each order, so there is no confusion about which version is slated for production.

When dealing with customers, a sales rep can more easily produce accurate quotations and fulfillment dates because bills of materials, material costs, and manufacturing schedules are all linked and made available. Even with custom orders, sales staff have better access to the information they need for accurate proposals.

A good PLM system consists of the processes and technologies that help automate workflow to the point where everyone understands what to do next and has the information they need in real time.

2. Higher product quality
Many factors contribute to a high-quality product, original design notwithstanding. Feedback from customer service about product performance can facilitate innovation. Warranties, service requests and return merchandise authorization (RMA) information can help the engineering department pinpoint product flaws. Information on change order rates, inspection defects, and corrective and preventive actions (CAPA) results enable better quality management.

As a product goes through design iterations, engineering change requests can be difficult to track. A PLM system ensures each change request or change order is assigned to the correct person, escalated and tracked as the change proceeds through design, assuring drawings are not released unless all outstanding change orders have been addressed. A complete audit trail is available, and engineering can review change requests as well as the ultimate resolution.

3. Faster time to market
PLM systems provide project management tools to help avoid product launch delays. Unlike stand-alone tools or spreadsheets, PLM systems provide real-time access to information on all aspects of a project. You should be able to create workflows that model each step in the process, including sub-projects and tasks. The custom workflow inside the PLM software then automatically moves the project to the right people at the right times and updates as processes move forward.

The right PLM software provides a real-time view for everyone involved in the product launch. These products provide visual tools you can use to manage new product introduction via graphical charts, outlining the status of tasks completed, or those still to be finished. A system can show progress in a chart format, using colour indicators to provide an at-a-glance way to monitor project performance, allowing everyone to spot when delays may potentially occur.

4. Reduce costs
Gain insight into product costs so you can make better decisions about product design.

PLM systems can connect material costs with designs through the bill of materials. This allows a design team to make informed decisions about which materials/parts to include in a product by taking costs into consideration and use materials already on hand. PLM can help reduce scrap, excess and rework by ensuring procurement, manufacturing and suppliers are working together.

These benefits, once only available to big operations and large companies are now accessible to everyone using Cloud-based PLM. Recognize, however, that even though the technology comes with built-in workflows, they won’t magically mirror your processes or systems. PLM systems need to be ‘taught’ how to route documents, customize product specifications, schedule orders, trigger quality inspections, and automate many other process that can propel your business faster than the competition.

Carl Smith is the manufacturing solutions manager at IMAGINiT Technologies. Working as lead consultant, project manager and head trainer, Smith has gained in-depth knowledge of Autodesk products and their application in various manufacturing plants across the U.S.

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.

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