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Mixed messages from manufacturers - Hard industry embraces collaboration, but differs on groupware products

This article appears in the issue May 1998 [Volume 7, Issue 6]

Traditional PDM systems are great at managing product development environments, but could they benefit from the collaborative/messaging capabilities found in groupware products like Lotus Notes (www.lotus.com)? As you can see from the vignettes that follow, the role of Notes and communication in general is perceived differently from manufacturing company to manufacturing company.


Glynn Miller

Manager of Planning

Whirlpool (Benton Harbor, MI)

At Whirlpool, Lotus Notes was first installed for use by some 60 people within the company's refrigeration unit two years ago. However, it is during the past nine months that the groupware product has made its most significant advances; an internally developed Notes application for the company's manufacturing division has been rolled out to 800-plus users across Whirlpool's North America operations.

The application was developed as part of a project, managed by Miller, that involved implementing a common project tracking database. Using Notes, Miller and his team created standard project and project tracking definitions for use by the company's engineers. In the wake of that project, all of Whirlpool's North American manufacturing projects are connected to that common Notes database.

Prior to Notes, Whirlpool experimented with spreadsheets and various database products. However, according to Miller, while those products led to "pockets of excellence," they did not lead to the creation of a common database that contained all the best practices information available within the company.

As with so many enterprise projects, it required a lot of internal upfront work before the technology part could be installed. Said Miller, "Before we could even program this thing, there had to be a lot of changes in our business practices. We had to get everybody on the same page as far as how you define a project, what the key measures are, and how you are going to manage it."

Although there was some resistance by engineers who thought they were losing control of individual project information, they gained more than they lost because of the shared database. "Now when we do reports for upper management, everybody is talking the same language," Miller said, adding that engineers can manage resources and manpower much more effectively.

Training people on Notes for the project required little time. Working from the premise that Notes would "fit the business," Whirlpool conducted four-hour training classes customized for internal use. Training was expedited because the way definitions were written and the way screens were set up fit the way the business was operating. As Miller said, "Ninety-five percent of this is stuff they were doing anyway, but they were doing it in other formats."

To make sure that system users remain current on the technology, Whirlpool is training "super users" at various locations who will augment initial training by teaching other users, for example, how to create their own personal folders. In the beginning, explained Miller, the goal was to teach basics, not overwhelm users with "every bit of functionality." Beyond that, the super users will be available whenever new functionality is added to the system.

Predictably, the more computer-literate employees have been quickest to master the new system, while others have required more time to "master all the tricks of running computer software."

Now that the system is up and running, the benefits are accruing. Primary among them is the availability of information in real time that was previously much more time-consuming to access. That is particularly important to Whirlpool because manufacturing and product design--two areas with long-standing differences in many corporations--are not co-located.

Prior to Notes, design engineers were hundreds of miles away from their manufacturing counterparts, with no way to closely communicate or collaborate. "Now, with the Notes database," said Miller, "they are sharing information in real time and we are actually using it to run our meetings through packages like PC Anywhere or Net Meeting. When we do project reviews, we no longer have to have engineers and designers driving between locations.

"You can bring people in via phone conferencing and video conferencing and they're all navigating through Notes, using the same information. You can update project information right there during the meeting, so it's really been a big timesaver in terms of having project meetings and having project information available."

Inputting information is also much easier in the Notes environment. Previously, to centralize project information, it was necessary to use spreadsheets that were fed into a central project planner who would consolidate all the information. That required the project planner to constantly seek project update information. With Notes, the responsibility for providing the data falls on its source--the engineers who run the projects.

While admitting that it's difficult to quantify hard-dollar savings for purposes of an ROI, Miller said that despite the investment his company made in dedicated Notes servers for 12 locations, the ROI is "well over 100%."

In the future, he would like to see the Notes system linked to product data management systems throughout Whirlpool, which would enable Notes to benefit from the workflow, calendaring and scheduling capabilities those systems have to offer.


Janet Gray

PDM Project Manager

Ventritex (San Jose)

Gray, who uses PDM from Sherpa (www.sherpa.com) is an eloquent advocate of the technology. She said that her PDM features an "inbox" capability that receives various system messages and alerts. The system is also linked to Outlook, Microsoft's (www.microsoft.com) messaging system.

Gray, who communicates closely with her vendor because Ventritex and Sherpa are both in San Jose, urges Sherpa to make its PDM compatible with various best-of-breed software packages rather than trying to embed those capabilities within the PDM itself. Toward that end, she has asked Sherpa to interface more closely with the messaging and scheduling capabilities of Outlook. According to her, the technological groundwork for such a union has already been laid, but because Sherpa's inbox feature works so well, she is in no hurry to pursue it.

She lauds the existing capabilities of her PDM, saying it allows users to work in their everyday applications such as Microsoft Project without having to engage the overall PDM environment.

Although advanced PDM capabilities are available, Gray is not rushing to implement them because she is still trying to convince people to abandon their paper-intensive environments. Beyond that, the need for centralized communications between groups has also not yet taken hold.

"For example, the people who used to do all the Excel spreadsheet work are not even in the habit of thinking of possibly getting all their information from a system used by manufacturing and development," Gray said. "They get their information out of an MRP system. It's a training process to really talk about an enterprise system."

Gray said that Notes does not have a "particularly sophisticated" configuration management capability. While Notes enables the sharing of files and documents, she said that it is only a piece of what's required in a comprehensive product design environment. Anyone who thinks that "PDM" and "document manager" are interchangeable terms is wrong, she added.

She said that some people in the pharmaceutical industry, for example, say that all they do is control documents. However, even in those document-intensive environments, there is a lack of knowledge about the relationships between documents, she said, adding that Notes will not provide that knowledge.

"Notes has a place for those folks who want to do a piece of PDM, for people who want to get on board with it. But then you end up asking questions like, 'But what about the parts?' and 'What about the relationships between these documents and parts?' So, if you're talking about a small workgroup that uses Notes, that's fine, but the need for connecting and relating information is different in an enterprise environment," she said.

Gray doesn't rule out the possibility of incorporating Notes with a PDM environment, saying that if it is working on a workgroup level, it may have the potential to become "part of the PDM umbrella." That kind of integration dovetails with her philosophy of integrating technology that users are comfortable with, rather than abandoning it.


Mike Massey

Engineering Systems Development Manager

Measurement Business Division, Tektronix (Beaverton, OR)

Massey has been using the Workgroup Technology (www.workgroup.com) CMS6 PDM product for three years. Following a pilot project, his group began a divisionwide implementation starting with the management of schematic and printed circuit board layout data. They chose those to start with because they felt that due to the larger quantity of materials involved, there was quicker and higher payback.

When an engineer completes a schematic, he or she submits it, which triggers notification to a circuit board designer, who pulls the schematic from the PDM system and designs the circuit board based on it. Custom software extracts information from the schematic and PCB files to populate the PDM database and establish the association between schematic and layout. As the process continues, the bill of material, information for board assembly machine setup and other information is extracted and sent along with a series of notifications to succeeding participants, culminating in the physical manufacture of the circuit board. Bills of material flow electronically from Engineering into the MRP system.

Following that initial implementation for schematic and circuit board design data, Massey's division implemented PDM management of mechanical design data. Work is underway to bring programmable devices and ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits) under PDM management.

"What we were really looking for with our PDM system was a single place where people could go to have access to all the design information," he said. "In the past, there were attempts to set up systems to organize information for each one of the design disciplines, but they were all different from each other, making access difficult. In the final operation where we assemble the whole product, they need to have a simple way to get their hands on the correct version of all design information."

The Measurement Business Division of Tektronix had three specific goals for its PDM system: Improve access to information, improve the integrity of the information and reduce the cycle time for changes. After making substantial progress on the first two, the company is focusing on reducing engineering change cycle time--a task it hopes to accomplish this year using some new tools from Workgroup Technology, which will allow it to develop a Web-based change control system that effectively integrates the PDM and MRP systems.

When it comes to collaboration and messaging, CMS6 features standard notification for changes in metadata and offers interface capabilities with popular E-mail systems. Massey said the notification feature is used extensively to keep people abreast of changes that may impact them.

He also said that there is a significant need for communication among the participants in the product development and manufacturing processes, especially as companies get larger and departments become more specialized. "Most people are really excited just to get a notification," he said. "I think we could take the collaborative idea a lot further."

For instance, it would be useful if the change control system was integrated with the PDM and MRP systems, according to Massey, because changes impact numerous departments. "People need to be aware not just that something is happening," he said, "but they need to have access to common information so everybody can work on it in parallel, rather than shipping it around serially from department to department. This would reduce change cycle time and improve accuracy."


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