Product Lifecycle Management

Rewriting the Rules of PDM (PLM Strategies Column)

1 Jul, 2008 By: Kenneth Wong

A look at T3 Energy's rule-based product data management.


Driving through the Lone Star State along Freeway 288, just before you come across the Old Spanish Trail, you'll pass a couple of elongated, single-story structures. They're part of the Houston headquarters of T3 Energy Services, which supplies well-control equipment for the oil and gas industry.



In 2000, after its mergers with Cor-Val and Preferred Industries, the company took on the name T3. That change marked the beginning of a decade of unprecedented expansion. T3 went on to acquire eight more businesses throughout the next eight years. And as the firm grew, so did its product portfolio.

Danny Wolfe, T3's engineering manager for pressure-control products, saw his CAD database swell with each new acquisition. At last count, he had six remote databases distributed between Houma, Louisiana, and Alberta, Canada — without an enterprise system that could integrate them into a unified whole.

Because some of the new companies T3 acquired were former competitors, Wolfe judged correctly that some duplicate parts and products were lurking in the CAD archives he'd inherited. The setup would give most IT managers heartburn.

T3's relief came from the Buckeye State in the north, via a consulting firm based in Stow, Ohio. Razorleaf, which specializes in what it calls rule-based product data management (PDM), proposed a custom solution built on Dassault Systemes' ENOVIA SmarTeam collaborative PDM software.

A Single Source

Beneath the security layers and the programming languages, T3's system operates on one simple rule: Make sure all business units are using the same technical data at all times.

"Our ERP [enterprise resource planning] system is individual to each business unit," explained Wolfe. "It's the same software, but it won't go across all business units. So SmarTeam becomes the hub for the item masters that feed the ERP data."

Jonathan Scott, a principal consultant with Razorleaf, said, "Although there are some logistical challenges to centralizing T3's ERP system, the company uses ENOVIA SmarTeam as its item master hub because it makes the most sense for its business. Engineering is centralized across locations, but manufacturing and operations are localized. So federating information in ERP, while centralizing engineering content in PDM, was actually a natural fit."

This system ensures that, even though each business unit has its own installation of ERP, all units are extracting the sourcing, shipping, and maintenance requirements generated from the same product data housed in SmarTeam.

Figure 1. T3 uses ENOVIA SmarTeam to control access to all engineering documents, such as the BOM shown here.
Figure 1. T3 uses ENOVIA SmarTeam to control access to all engineering documents, such as the BOM shown here.

Smart IP Management

The other use of ENOVIA SmarTeam is to monitor access to T3's intellectual property (IP) (figure 1). Now that all product data exists digitally, it's far easier to literally walk away with IP. So what's to prevent an unscrupulous contractor or employee from smuggling out T3's patent-pending designs for the Torque Reduction Manual Operator or the Hydraulic Double-Acting Actuator on a USB drive?

"With SmarTeam, all our IP is vaulted," said Wolfe, "so you can't download it to a portable drive." Because all the transactions are recorded, if someone makes unauthorized printouts of a certain design file, that too will show up in a report, providing a digital trail that an IT manager can follow to locate the violator.

Figure 2. The sheer size of T3's products, such as the 65,000-lb Blow-Out Preventer shown here, gives the company a reason to do everything it can to prevent cutting the wrong parts.
Figure 2. The sheer size of T3's products, such as the 65,000-lb Blow-Out Preventer shown here, gives the company a reason to do everything it can to prevent cutting the wrong parts.

In the future, by combining ENOVIA SmarTeam's data-management features and Adobe's digital-rights management (DRM) components, T3 plans to further refine its access control. "The next step is to look at how we send our documents out to the vendors, suppliers, and contractors," Wolfe explained. "We may, for instance, disable printing, prevent the file from launching if it's been moved to a different location, or set a time limit."

"Adobe's DRM technology is nifty," said Scott. "But when you tie it to the product data in SmarTeam, you can set up rules for the level of control you give people. So you can tell the system that, when someone does X and Y to the file, you want Z-level restriction applied to it." Such a setup, Wolfe and Scott imagined, would not only prevent IP compromise but also eliminate communication errors.

Smart Resource Management

Energy Equipment, (now known as T3 Creekmont), a company T3 recently acquired, had in its portfolio a line of gate valves that are comparable to the ones marketed by T3. Now that the two companies have merged, Wolfe has the unenviable task of going through Creekmont's database to figure out which ones should be preserved and which ones shouldn't.

"SmarTeam helps us do that by keeping the data clean," Wolfe said. "By sorting existing data with our unique profile-card attributes, we can easily search for specific designs already in the system and compare them with the designs we need to load and review for duplication."

Because T3's companywide CAD platform is SolidWorks, Wolfe and his staff will soon need to make a decision about the Pro/ENGINEER files inherited from Creekmont. A data conversion is certainly under consideration, but it's not necessarily the only option, in Wolfe's assessment.

"Creekmont's business is good. We don't want to introduce any hurdles in the way they've been designing their products," he said. "We might just keep them in Pro/E."

Added Scott, "SmarTeam allows T3 to either convert the Pro/E files to SolidWorks and maintain the history [of the conversion] or keep a mixed environment [housing AutoCAD, SolidWorks, and Pro/E]." In fact, Wolfe doesn't foresee any problem maintaining and working with hybrid assemblies that contain both SolidWorks and Pro/E data. He believes he can rely on SmarTeam's relationship management features to track the different parts in an assembly.

Crossing the WAN Chasm

Since starting the ENOVIA SmarTeam implementation, T3 and its consultant Razorleaf have discovered how crucial WAN connection is to the success of the setup. "When we started this project, we had mediocre WAN connection," recalled Wolfe. "The connections were less than stellar."

When T3 engineers from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, or Houma, Louisiana, remotely accessed the files and programs housed in the central repository in Houston, Texas, they experienced launch times as long as 30 minutes — regardless of the size of the assembly file.

"We have since upgraded our connections companywide," explained Wolfe. "T1 is the minimum pipeline for all our main facilities. We have 20-Mbps lines in some of the heavily staffed offices."

For security, T3 uses a multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) network setup to connect to its remote servers.

Browser-Based BOM

When engineers want to consult the bill of materials (BOM) on T3's shop floor, they don't need to launch SmarTeam. Instead, they fire up Internet Explorer or Mozilla Firefox. "Because we display the BOM on a Web interface, we don't have to distribute software," Scott said. "So they don't have to know the ins and outs of the PDM system. They're merely data consumers. They get in, get what they need in the format they want, and go about the rest of their day."

T3 uses the same method in all of its joint ventures with overseas partners in China, Dubai, and Mexico. "Smar- Team's project-based security lets us set it up so they can access one set of data but not the rest," explained Scott.

Error-Proof CNC

T3's products generally weigh between 20,000 and 65,000 lb (figure 2). At this scale, making a mistake means producing a pile of scrap metal comparable in size to a PT Cruiser — or bigger. As a result, error-proofing the production process is a priority for T3's CIO Adam Barrilleaux, whose favorite axiom is "whatever it takes."

Barrilleaux believes it will take a computer numerical- control (CNC) production process driven by the consolidated product data that lives on a network. In response, Wolfe and Scott are working on a system that distills the CNC operators' workflow down to a number of options in a drop-down menu.

Theoretically, the business rules in place in SmarTeam will determine the CNC programming options available to the operators. "Let's say you're getting ready to cut a part," Scott explained. "You scan the barcode on the raw metal piece, you scan the machine, and the machine communicates with SmarTeam and the ERP system and comes back to you with a list of [toolpath] programming options, limited to only the subset of operations applicable to that part and that machine. The invalid options are excluded from the choices."

Wolfe and Scott won't know if this process will run as smoothly as they imagine until six or seven months from now, but the premise seems like irrefutable logic. If you don't want to have to scrap parts, don't give the CNC operators the option to cut the parts incorrectly.


About the Author: Kenneth Wong


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