Product Lifecycle Management (PLM)

Let Your Engineers Engineer

13 Jan, 2012 By: Chad Jackson

When companies use PDM and PLM systems to manage review processes, engineering staff is freed to focus on product design.


Recognize that? It's the sound of yet another request, form, or other project-management task hitting your desk. Managing an engineering organization today is an unrelenting job. Every project is understaffed. Every day brings a new fire drill. Every product is getting more complex. You and your team end up working nights and weekends to stay on schedule. Now maybe you don't mind long hours. Heck, everyone's working hard nowadays. But you have to admit, there's one part of this reality that is frustratingly ironic: Most of your time isn't spent on engineering work.

It's not exploring options, performing calculations, or even validating designs. Most of your team's time is spent tracking down the shop floor guy to get his feedback. It's showing the folks from procurement that a specific part is required. It's proving to the people in the service organization that yes, in fact, that maintenance procedure does work. Is this why you went into engineering?

Unfortunately, you're not alone. This engineering scenario is fairly common, and so are the resulting frustrations of today's engineers. How do you get back to performing real engineering work?

Read on. As hard as it is to be an engineering manager today, there are actually some answers to these questions.

Design for the Enterprise

If you've been around long enough, you probably remember the good old days when engineering work was all about form, fit, and function. You crafted parts that worked according to your intent. You sized parts according to engineering calculations. With confidence that everything was firmly under control, you signed your name on an engineering drawing and released it to manufacturing.

Now make no mistake, the need to design quality products hasn't gone away — not by any means. However, the rules of the game have changed. Design criteria have expanded considerably, and designing products today is as much about manufacturability, serviceability, and similar big-picture considerations as it is about form, fit, and function. Overall, there's been a shift toward design for the enterprise.

That in and of itself isn't really a problem. Design for the enterprise simply means getting more people involved earlier in the development cycle — people from the shop floor to weigh in on manufacturability, service organizations to validate feasibility of their procedures, people from procurement to assess if some parts could be replaced with more easily sourced ones, and so forth.

But who is responsible for getting these people involved in the design process? Engineers.

Bingo. That's the problem. It's no wonder that engineers spend less time designing products today.

Painful Process of Getting It Done

To begin the process of design for the enterprise, engineers must communicate their design intent. Without this understanding, other stakeholders could end up requesting design changes that are inappropriate or impossible.

Next, with some understanding of how the product works, stakeholders assess the design within the context of their role in the product-development process and provide feedback. Because issues often arise when stakeholders give feedback to engineers verbally, it's recommended that this be done in some documented, digital fashion that can be stored and referenced.

OK, so it's painful. But is it a big deal? Yes.

All this affects productivity as well as personal sanity. When nonengineering stakeholders are at work, engineers end up spending most of their workdays resolving issues related to design for the enterprise. What about form, fit, and function? Engineers end up addressing those issues on nights and weekends.

Answer: The 3D Model

There's good news, however: The solution to this challenge comes in the form of technologies that can change how you manage the design for the enterprise process. Believe it or not, when done right, most of this burden can be lifted from the engineer's shoulders.

It all starts with the 3D model. The engineering organization uses CAD to create mechanical representations of the product as part of the design cycle.

Now, asking nonengineers to use design tools such as CAD is asking too much, that's true. However, this is a perfect situation for using software tools that allow non-CAD users to easily view and mark up 3D models from a variety of CAD applications. Nonengineering stakeholders can interrogate the model or even create automated representations of procedures to validate or assess the product. They also can document their feedback and suggestions to the engineer in a digital and easy-to-understand format.

Design Reviews for Enterprise Considerations

 Paper or Email-based ProcessPLM-driven Process
Design Review Feedback/NotesVerbal or text-based: Often out of date; lack design contextView and markup 3D model: Up to date, accurate, and unambiguous design representation
Assigning and Tracking TasksManually by individuals via phone, email, one-on-one conversationPLM workflow generates review and task notifications: automatically tracked
Accessing Design DocumentsPrinted: Often out of date or lost on someone's deskCentrally Accessible in PLM: Latest version always up-to-date

Answer: PDM/PLM

But, it's not all about the 3D model. In fact, you could argue that the process-related aspects of design for the enterprise are more important — although this raises some crucial questions. For example, when should nonengineering stakeholders get to look at the design? How can you make sure they are looking at the very latest iteration?

This is where data-management benefits of PDM (product data management) or PLM (product lifecycle management) systems come into play. Most engineers associate these kinds of capabilities with tracking the versions and iterations of the documents and 3D models. But it can also provide anyone else in the enterprise with access to that same data in a timely manner. For example, most of these types of systems can be setup to only allow nonengineering stakeholders to see 3D models once they leave the conceptual stage. So, it's not just about tracking who made which change in which iteration. PDM and PLM systems can make sure that the very latest version of a design is shown to whomever has access to the design at any given stage of the workflow. This means no more running around throwing the latest drawing into someone's hands.

Another crucial aspect of design for the enterprise is managing the process itself. Getting feedback from all nonengineering stakeholders is essentially a design review. For some, stakeholder feedback comes simultaneously with the design review that occurs during product engineering. For others, it comes immediately after. Still others have their own, unique process for nonengineering review. Regardless of how it happens in your company, PLM systems have workflow tools to distribute tasks automatically in any sequence you can imagine, helping to ensure that the right people provide feedback on time and, most importantly, without any hand-holding from engineers.

Implications for Engineering

In summary, the benefits outlined here are just a few of many that companies will experience with a PDM or PLM system, but for the engineer, these are significant:

  • Nonengineering stakeholders can interrogate and validate designs as well as document their feedback using viewing and markup applications. As a result, engineers no longer have to repeatedly demonstrate their design intent and collect verbal feedback.
  • Nonengineering stakeholders can be delivered the right 3D models at the right time, so engineers no longer have to distribute or redistribute the latest drawings.
  • Nonengineering stakeholders can be automatically delivered tasks as part of an extended design review workflow and can digitally submit their feedback, so engineers are no longer burdened with managing these tasks.

Using PDM or PLM tools, suddenly engineers no longer have to manage design discussions. Ultimately, that means they can get back to what they really want to do: spend more time in their day on value-added design and engineering work.

About the Author: Chad Jackson

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