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Engineering Company. (Work Flow System)



Engineering Workflow


The term 'Engineering Workflow' refers to the flow of work through those activities that create or use engineering data. Engineering Workflow is not limited to the flow of work through the Engineering Department. It also includes the flow through those other organizations that make use of engineering data. Some of the activities take place inside the company, others outside the company. With this definition, the use of welding instructions on the shop floor is a step in the overall Engineering workflow. Similarly, maintenance work is another step.

In theory, the Engineering workflow starts with initial product specification, and ends with product use by the customer. In practice, it is not so simple. Engineering workflow is not a linear process, starting with one well-determined activity, and continuing serially through other well-determined activities, until it reaches a well-determined final activity. Instead, it is a complex process in which some activities run in series, and some run in parallel. Sometimes it is only when an activity has been completed, and its result is known, that the next activity can be identified. In some cases, the result of the activity will mean that previous activities have to be repeated.

It is as important for companies to manage engineering workflow as it is for them to manage engineering data. It is only too easy for companies to get so immersed in the many, and highly visible, problems of managing data that they neglect the workflow. If they do this, though, they will not achieve EDM/PDM goals such as reducing product development lead times and engineering change management costs. In companies that have traditional, sequential engineering workflows, the inefficiencies of the workflow nullify the benefits of improved data management.

The product that the customer will eventually receive is designed and manufactured by the activities of the workflow. This means that the quality and cost of the product are functions of the engineering workflow. The elapsed time between the first idea for a product, and the moment that the first customer receives the product, depends on the efficiency of the engineering workflow. Since the engineering workflow affects product cost and quality, and manufacturing and overall lead times, companies faced by competitors producing higher-quality products faster, and at lower cost, need to improve their engineering workflow. To do this, they must first understand the workflow, and bring it under control. Unless they take control of it, they cannot hope to improve it, and, as a result, improve customer service.

It is not difficult for companies with a traditional engineering workflow made up of sequential independent steps (conceptual design to preliminary design to analysis to detailed design to process planning to purchasing to production planning to production to quality control to field tests) to understand where the problems lie. Disjunctures, superfluous steps, and inefficient activities in the workflow all contribute to extending lead times, increasing costs and reducing quality.

With the traditional workflow, it is impossible to accurately forecast costs and lead times at the beginning of the process because nobody knows what will actually happen. In any given step of the workflow, people do not have all the necessary knowledge and experience so they make assumptions, and get something wrong. Later in the sequence, a correction has to be made. The process loops back and time is lost. In some cases, the change process takes up as much time as initial development. The change process is so complex that bureaucratic approval procedures have to be added between steps and to govern changes. In one company, more than 20 managers were signing off individual steps and changes. This not only wasted the managers' time, but also lengthened the development time by several months. In many industries, time to market is the key parameter. An overrun of six months will cause a big drop in expected profits, and have a very negative effect on customers.

Most companies are organized to manage individual steps in the workflow, but the overall engineering workflow is not managed. Individual activities are at best managed on a departmental or functional basis, and take account of neither the overall flow, nor the detailed needs of other groups. Often, no one is responsible for the overall workflow. Problems are neither understood in detail, nor addressed from an overall point of view. As a result, they are not solved. The overall workflow remains inefficient, wasteful, and out of control.

When overall engineering workflow is brought under control, lead times are reduced, quality goes up, and costs go down. Once the workflow is controlled, a good understanding of final product costs is achieved earlier in the engineering process. Accurate estimates of lead times can be made.

The link between engineering data and engineering workflow
All the activities along the engineering workflow create and/or use engineering data. The workflow exists to provide the engineering data necessary to produce and support the product. Without engineering data, there would be no need for the engineering workflow. Engineering data and engineering workflow are very closely linked.

Each workflow activity has its information needs, information input and information output. Within an activity, people use information. If information is not available, it may not be possible to complete the activity. Often, the end of an activity is characterized by information being prepared, signed off and released. Between activities, information is transferred. When an iteration or change occurs in the workflow, more information is produced. Information flow has to be synchronized with workflow so that the information is available when and where it is needed.

Within individual engineering activities, the percentage of time that people spend looking for, or transferring, information is high. For many, otherwise productive, people it may be 30% or even 50%. As time may also be taken up by management tasks, the time actually spent on the functional activity may only be about 30%. In many companies there are technical 'liaison' staff who spend 100% of their time looking for information that should have been transmitted by other departments.

Engineering data is created with the intention of being used. Presumably the creator of information knows for whom it is being created. Once created, it should be moved on to the activity that is going to use it. Since engineering data and engineering workflow are so closely linked, it is not possible to control one without becoming involved with the other. Implementation of major changes in the way that data is managed requires a reappraisal of the way that the engineering workflow is managed.

When automated engineering data management is introduced, major steps are taken, either deliberately or by default, towards automating the workflow. If the workflow is not improved before the information flow is automated, the existing, inefficient workflow and information flow will be automated.

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