Integrating design and manufacturing systems breeds continuous improvement

It isn't difficult for some companies to deliver correct work instructions to the plant floor. But it's not so easy for a company like Rolls-Royce, which makes engines for commuter jets and helicopters at a plant in Indianapolis. “The process of assembling a helicopter engine is complicated enough, but it gets even more complex when the bills of material change frequently to reflect par...

By Jim Fulcher, contributing editor May 1, 2007

It isn’t difficult for some companies to deliver correct work instructions to the plant floor. But it’s not so easy for a company like Rolls-Royce , which makes engines for commuter jets and helicopters at a plant in Indianapolis.

“The process of assembling a helicopter engine is complicated enough, but it gets even more complex when the bills of material change frequently to reflect part replacements made to improve helicopter performance or safety,” says Matt Thomas, systems implementation manager for operations at Rolls-Royce’s Indianapolis facility. “The work instructions must be updated each time to reflect those changes.”

Keeping production flowing in the face of constant design changes caused Rolls-Royce to take a broader view of its product development processes. Now the Indianapolis plant is leading a companywide effort to integrate its product life-cycle management (PLM) systems with the applications that run plant-floor operations.

While this type of integration is far from commonplace, many industry experts believe it’s something more manufacturers should at least consider.

“Any company already integrating PLM and manufacturing systems is on the leading edge of efforts to push the boundaries of just how much can be gained from these systems,” says Jim Brown, VP of product innovation and engineering research at Boston-based Aberdeen Group . “The idea of using these systems in an integrated manner has tremendous appeal.”

Logical linkup

Brown says linking PLM and shop-floor systems creates multiple opportunities for cutting production costs and improving product quality. “Companies don’t want to reinvent the wheel with each new product,” he says. “They want to reuse parts and processes to speed time-to-market. They also want to make use of lessons learned from manufacturing to improve quality. Integrating PLM and shop-floor systems offers the means to do both.”

At Rolls-Royce, linking the Teamcenter PLM package from UGS to a manufacturing execution system (MES) from Visiprise opened the door to meaningful collaboration among product design engineers, process engineers, quality specialists, and production technicians.

“These are people with a lot of knowledge,” Thomas says, adding that an early benefit of their ongoing collaboration has been more timely delivery of work instructions to the shop floor. “Operators now receive instructions based on input from the design, manufacturing, and quality teams,” he says. “This information is being delivered [to the operator’s workstation] at the correct time.”

While it’s hard to gauge just how many companies are actively working to link PLM and shop-floor systems, Aberdeen’s Brown expects spending on shop-floor systems to increase significantly over the next two years, with a sizeable portion of that spend going toward shop-floor/PLM integration.

Industrial automation vendor Wonderware already is working on projects in the aerospace & defense and consumer packaged goods industries, says Claus Abildgren, marketing program manager.

“Companies are focusing on automating manufacturing processes to eliminate variances and other factors that impact supply chain performance,” Abildgren says. “Whether they want to integrate PLM, and, for example, an MES, depends on the complexity of the products they make.”

Closing a gap

Alex Mackenzie, VP of product management at PLM solutions supplier PTC , notes a “huge level of interest” in PLM-MES integration among two types of manufacturers: those with high-cost, complex products that require extensive design work, such as with aircraft or automobiles; and those with products that undergo frequent design changes, as found in high-tech consumer goods.

These manufacturers believe merging PLM and shop-floor systems will help identify design issues that could lead to production delays before products are released from engineering. This makes sense, says Mackenzie, because it’s easier and much less expensive to fix design problems before products go into production.

“In the past, [addressing design issues at the production stage] was always considered to be a problem for the manufacturing team to address,” Mackenzie says. “But executives now realize the opportunity in reviewing manufacturing processes during a product’s design phase. Following that approach reduces manufacturing costs, time-to-market, and overall product cost.”

While PTC is trying to further this approach from the PLM side, other vendors are addressing it from an execution-system perspective. Apriso , an operations execution solutions vendor, is developing an outline for an integrated plant-floor infrastructure in which MES and PLM solutions can complement one another in coordinating product design and manufacturing activities.

“In today’s hypercompetitive manufacturing world, no one has the luxury of long product design cycles that don’t include input about manufacturing processes,” says Fred Thomas, Apriso’s automotive industry director. “Companies must adopt a product-centric approach that leverages both PLM and execution systems. The PLM solution maintains product design data while the MES maintains real-world data about plant-floor capabilities and what happened when a particular product was made.”

In Apriso’s view, integrating these solutions enables a company to analyze manufacturing performance, and use that information to improve product designs. Analyzing manufacturing performance can, for example, uncover how certain raw materials and components hold up during manufacturing. “The result is the ability to make better long-term product design decisions based on input from the plant floor.”

Tool talk

Companies that rely on equipment with customized tooling to build products also are interested in blending PLM and plant-level systems, says Alain Iung, VP of marketing for digital manufacturing at UGS .

UGS Tecnomatix software has applications for designing both production facilities and processes. The vendor now wants to enable manufacturers to incorporate information about all plant-floor activities—including those involving the design of production equipment—into product design processes. To that end, the latest version of Tecnomatix includes strengthened PLM integration and enhanced process planning and simulation capabilities.

According to Iung, these capabilities should enable companies that deploy the Tecnomatix suite to design products that are not only easier to manufacture, but also prove to be of higher quality.

“The emerging trend to capture and reuse production data clearly is on the rise as companies strive to create work instructions in a PLM solution and integrate the solution with an MES to ensure that the as-designed and as-built versions of all products are in sync,” Iung says. “But the benefits can go even further to include the ability to design products in a way that allows optimizing manufacturing processes. Tapping into knowledge about manufacturing processes and sequences enables products to be designed with the goal of not only reducing time-to-market but also machine time for building products.”

That’s the direction Rolls-Royce is moving in. Later this year, it will complete the first stage of its PLM-MES integration project. Ultimately, the company envisions all of its products being designed in a way that neatly fits with its manufacturing processes.

“Using Teamcenter gives us a product foundation because that’s where information about product parts, designs, processes, the factory, and features resides,” says Rolls-Royce’s Thomas. “The Visiprise MES then captures data about actual production. Integrating the solutions moves us closer to the vision of achieving feature-based machining, where tolerances for features are based on actual shop-floor capabilities. Ultimately, we want to base product designs on shop-floor capabilities so we can move the cost of making product changes back to the design stage, where it’s cheaper than in manufacturing.”

Focus on quality

While the movement to integrate PLM and the plant floor is in its early stages, both solution providers and early adopters realize it’s not the final goal. Given that PLM is such a far-reaching activity, it also can be integrated with enterprise solutions to reap additional benefits.

A three-tier infrastructure that allows moving data from the plant floor to a PLM system—and then to an enterprise application—would be an effective platform for creating processes that continuously improve product quality, surmises Marc Lind, a VP with Aras , which offers an open-source PLM solution based on Microsoft .NET technology.

As manufacturers produce goods, they learn about design flaws through processes like first-article inspection documented in a quality system, Lind says. Therefore, integrating quality, production, and product-design data can result in a closed-loop product improvement process.

“MES and control systems do all the heavy lifting for plant-floor operations, so product design information should be tethered to those systems,” Lind says. “But quality inspection systems should be included in that loop as well. Closing the loop enables feeding quality information about products and production back into product design. That way, nonconformance data can be captured and linked back to product design to consider for immediate design changes, as well as for next-generation product design.”

Ogihara America , a Howell, Mich.-based Tier 1 supplier of fenders and door frames, shortened the time it takes to respond to product quality issues by forging a link between the Aras Innovator suite and the QAD ERP package.

Ogihara uses Aras Innovator to manage its Advanced Product Quality Planning process, a methodology that nearly all automotive manufacturers use to ensure compliance with both regulatory and customer requirements in regard to product quality.

If an Ogihara customer identifies a quality issue with a received part, an Ogihara employee stationed at the customer can log into the Aras suite via a Web browser and send an alert to Ogihara’s ERP system.

“We would then react immediately and contain the problem,” says Dennis Henning, Ogihara’s IT manager. “But this isn’t just a manufacturing issue, because a quality alert has an impact throughout the enterprise,” Henning adds. “We need to stop shipping pieces already made, stop producing the part in question, and maybe even revise MRP so we don’t schedule more of that part for production until we determine what happened.”

While the quality trigger is initiated manually, the company is working to automate the process. Plans also include leveraging that quality data to improve future product designs.

“We can get information to flow back and forth between Innovator and the ERP solution,” Henning says. “We just need to do more to automate the process, such as building out the triggers so we can eliminate the manual parts of the process.”

Management at Rolls-Royce has this three-stage integration vision as well. The company stores detailed information about its manufacturing methods in the Teamcenter PLM solution. Eventually it wants to send precise instructions—including how long it should take to complete specific jobs—to its SAP enterprise system.

“That will give the SAP system the structure it needs to load capacity, run MRP, and release orders to production,” Thomas says.

It also should ensure Rolls-Royce management that all of its products are being built on time—and exactly as they were designed.