Manufacturer Takes PDM Benefits to the Bank

15 Aug, 2004 By: Cadalyst Staff

PDM system saves welding equipment manufacturer $275,000 per year

ESAB is the world's largest manufacturer and supplier of welding and cutting equipment, filler metals, and technology (figure 1). In the past, an outside vendor scanned each of the company's engineering drawings into a database, and users printed them as needed. The company's new SmarTeam PDM system from SmarTeam Americas (Beverly, Massachusetts) instead stores native CAD documents in an electronic vault, where users can easily access or view them in far less time than was needed to generate paper documents. The new PDM system also automates the ECO (engineering change order) process, automatically routing updated drawings to the proper people and making it easy to track their status.

Figure 1. ESAB manufactures welding equipment for worldwide distribution.

"Moving to PDM was an easy decision for us," says Shannon Soupiset, vice-president of engineering for ESAB. "We recovered all our costs in seven to eight months by canceling our document management service and have generated substantial savings since then. Beyond that, the additional capabilities of the system, such as giving us control over the ECO process and providing electronic document access to engineering and manufacturing personnel, have provided significant efficiency gains."

ESAB's products cover the fields of welding, plasma arc and oxy-fuel cutting, mechanized shape cutting, welding filler metals, and scarfing. With 100 years of experience in the industry, it has operations in 25 countries organized into four geographical regions: Europe, North America, South America and Asia/Pacific. ESAB serves the transport and off-road vehicle industries as well as the offshore, shipbuilding, power, process and construction industries. Annual sales amount to $1.25 billion.

Previous Document Management Methods
Until about five years ago, ESAB stored design information on paper in filing cabinets. At that point, the company launched a project to find an alternative. However, that research did not turn up any software systems that would serve its needs, especially in terms of native file storage that any user could view.

So ESAB made the decision to scan documents (figure 2) and store them as TIF files that could be distributed and viewed by anyone. It hired an outside service company to run a document management center at ESAB's Florence, South Carolina, facility. Whenever an ECO was approved, drafters would print the revised drawings and turn them over to personnel at the document center, who would scan them into the document management system. When the company received an order, document center personnel printed paper copies of documents and placed them in job packs to send to the factory.

Figure 2. Before ESAB adopted its PDM system, every document such as this one had to be scanned into a database.

Operating the document center was labor intensive, resulting in a substantial fee paid to the operator. It often took several hours to produce copies of documents in response to requests, and the risk was always present that an outdated but still-circulating paper copy of a design could be put into production. Nevertheless, Soupiset says, "The old method provided decent document control but at a very high cost."

ESAB also wanted to improve its ECO approval process. The drafter who documented a change would make about a dozen updated copies and send them simultaneously to everyone in line to review them. The process wasn't ideal -- some people couldn't review the changes until others had signed off -- but distributing the documents sequentially would have greatly increased the time required to complete the process. And with documents distributed on paper, it was always possible for something to be delayed considerably or even lost, and the lack of a tracking process further complicated the situation.

Implementing the New Systems
Mike Allen, process engineer for ESAB, played a key role in selecting and implementing the new PDM. "We work with a number of different CAD systems -- primarily AutoCAD with some Pro/ENGINEER in the United States and SolidWorks in Europe," Allen said. Our biggest challenge was finding PDM software that was capable of working with all these different systems, plus the others used by our customers and vendors."

The SmarTeam PDM includes a powerful viewer that makes it possible to view more than 150 native file formats, including 2D and 3D CAD and hybrid drawings, raster and vector graphics, word documents, spreadsheets, and more. Supported file formats include AutoCAD, Mechanical Desktop, Solid Edge, SolidWorks, CATIA, Autodesk Inventor, MicroStation, Microsoft Word, Excel, and others.

"It took only about six weeks to get up and running and trained on the software," Allen said. "[SmarTeam's] consultants helped us set up a semiautomated process that migrated our existing documents into their system. We simply exported our old database into Microsoft Access and imported the Access database into SmarTeam."

Implementing the new system made it possible to terminate the document management service for a five-figure monthly cost savings. The PDM system now controls the native CAD files in a secure electronic vault that ensures data integrity while preventing accidental deletion and unauthorized modification. Based on permissions defined by the system administrator, both engineering and manufacturing personnel can instantly access CAD models and drawings (figure 3), eliminating delays and the risks inherent in paper document distribution. Lifecycle management controls a document and all its related components, such as assemblies, drawings, title blocks, and external reference files. The company can distribute drawings and related information over the Web, which means file access extends to ESAB personnel and key vendors worldwide. Even users who don't have access to the CAD system where documents are stored can view drawings and make comments.

Figure 3. An engineering drawing as it appears in the SmarTeam PDM system.

Automating the ECO Process
ESAB used the SmartFlow workflow management tool provided with SmarTeam to automate the ECO approval process. SmartFlow gives managers the tools to set up regular information flow processes, moving documents through each stage and enabling the rapid resolution of bottlenecks. The new ECO process is sequential, meaning each person receives documents when it is most appropriate for him or her to comment.

"If a problem with the ECO is found at any step of the process," Allen says, "the sequential review avoids the painful problem of identifying and alerting everyone affected that the change should be retracted or altered. With the SmartFlow system, you know exactly who has processed the change, and those who are downstream never know the difference."

The documents go first to the product engineer to review the changes and ensure they are consistent with the design intent. They then go to the manufacturing engineering manager, who addresses issues involved in producing parts to the new specs. Then the documents go to several people in parallel. The manufacturing planner addresses inventory issues, such as whether the company needs to stop stocking some components and begin stocking others. The marketing communications person is responsible for making changes to product literature. The quality manager uses the ECO to update the inspection process. Cost accounting is responsible for determining production costs and making needed pricing adjustments. The sales staff also sees the documents so they can prepare to sell the new product.

"The new process is much more organized," Allen says. "Each person gets the documents at the moment when they are ready for their input, which helps avoid delays. The PDM system provides continual feedback that lets us easily determine the status of every change order. We can easily identify ECOs that have become delayed at a certain point in the process. Everyone knows who hasn't reviewed the document, which encourages people to respond more quickly. When someone is out of town or otherwise not available for approvals, the ECO can be reassigned by a manager to someone else to keep the process moving."

Soupiset concludes, "The PDM system paid for itself in a short period of time and has given us the tools to make major gains in document management and control. It's difficult to determine whether ECOs actually are completed faster because we had no way to measure how long it took in the past. The key thing is that the ECO process is now under better control and we have the tools to implement and measure future process improvements."

SmarTeam Inc.


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Cadalyst Staff

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