Why Industrial Machinery and Heavy Equipment Manufacturers Should Look Into Extending PLM to Manufacturing

Customer demand has grown during the past decades to become more specific than ever before. It’s all about product manufacturers catering to different needs and tastes of consumers. Just think about the shelves at your local supermarket – there are plenty more products to choose from than, say, 20 years ago. 

The same can be seen in business-to-business as companies are now looking for fit-for-purpose solutions that do exactly what they need them to do efficiently without bells and whistles they don’t need. But the thing is that for some, those bells and whistles are exactly what they need, so manufacturers have to be able to meet a multitude of different needs. And that’s not easy.

Back in 2012, John Deere built, on average only 1,5 machines with the same configuration while they delivered in total more than 7 800 unique variants. It’s a huge challenge to design and manage a product portfolio to support such a scenario. The solution is to invest in the development of modular and configurable products that can be quickly configured to order based on customer’s needs. To answer even more specific needs manufacturers quite often provide engineer to order services in order to deliver a customized solution that fulfills the exact customer needs. Configure-to-order (CTO) and engineer-to-order (ETO) are great ways to manage product complexity.

What about manufacturing?

While CTO and ETO approach help companies to relieve product management complexity many forget about the implications on the shop floor. It’s well known that variation on the shop floor leads to inefficient processes. How can a manufacturing company overcome this challenge? Well, the scouts have known this for a long time – the answer is to “be prepared”. In the world of manufacturing we can look into the preparedness from three angles:

  1. Enabling manufacturing engineers to access all relevant information as early as possible
  2. Providing means for visual process planning
  3. Delivering intelligent, easy to follow work instructions to the shop floor

Let’s look at each of these aspects more in detail.

Closed-loop change between engineering and manufacturing

Traditionally product engineering has been rather disconnected from manufacturing and the information passed on consists mainly of drawings and bills-of-materials or BOMs. Usually, there are some design reviews held based on project gate models where manufacturing people get to have their say yet this approach doesn’t really enable thorough analysis from the manufacturing perspective. Hence quite often the proper manufacturing process planning can only begin at the physical prototype phase.

When manufacturing engineers are given access to the same data and information as the product designers via a platform like Teamcenter PLM they become part of the process in a much earlier stage enabling them to provide earlier feedback which ultimately results in cost savings as required product changes are acknowledged and implemented before any physical prototypes are built. Furthermore, the Teamcenter PLM platform provides a manufacturing process planner application that helps manufacturing engineers to begin process planning activities way before they usually have.

Visual process planning

Manufacturing process plans are traditionally described using spreadsheets which are sometimes accompanied with e.g. flow charts for easier understanding. The issue with this approach is that it is totally disconnected from product engineering, it doesn’t really provide any visual aid, and managing changes is time-consuming and error-prone. In addition, manufacturing engineers have to wait until product engineering releases bill-of-materials and drawings to begin this work.

Enabling manufacturing engineers to plan manufacturing activities concurrently with product engineering on Teamcenter platform provides them access to all required design data, including 3D models, to create ERP/MES-ready material routings, and to balance the activities and tasks across workstations or production lines to meet cycle time requirements. The possibility to visualize the product build step-by-step in 3D, to perform visual time analysis, and to visualize the process flows using PERT and Gantt charts are the keys to getting the job done efficiently. Teamcenter Manufacturing Process Planner also allows authoring and publishing work instructions in the context of manufacturing operations. This is something most manufacturing engineers are not used to.

Intelligent shop floor instructions

Typical work instructions on the shop floor include paper drawings and bills-of-materials. Sometimes additional instruction documents may be at hand. Some manufacturing companies have digitized these and enabled access to pdf’s or other digital formats. Strange as it seems, using 2D drawings with projections etc. is still very common even though engineering is done in 3D. Wouldn’t 3D be much more visual way to communicate needed features, especially for younger generations now rapidly taking over many workplaces?

Intelligent shop floor instructions provide workers with intuitive access to the information they need, when they need it. Authored in context of the process steps the information covers only what is needed, nothing more, nothing less. Visually rich instructions with 3D models, an interactive list of consumed parts and needed tools, even animation or video to guide them through the task helps shop floor workers perform their job right from the start and shortens the learning curve. Furthermore, Teamcenter platform enables collection of quality measurements and even serial numbers while providing means for reporting back any deviations or problems complemented with any attachments like photographs or documents. This is where the loop from manufacturing back to product engineering is closed.

Putting it all together

What does all this mean in the end? Quite simply, enhancing cross-departmental collaboration, making manufacturing process planning more efficient, and providing easy-to-follow instructions on the shop floor all aim at the same goal – to be able to deliver products to customers faster and with better quality.