Process is a fundamental element to control manufacturing companies. It comes in a form of multiple activities that must managed – created, orchestrated and monitored. What role PLM is playing in the overall product development and manufacturing processes?

To speak about it, I want to go back and speak about PDM (Product Data Management) – one of the predecessors of Product Lifecycle Management. At the beginning of PDM, the idea was how to help engineers to manage data. However, enterprise software development and consolidating of various product suites into ERP software, made CAD, PDM and PLM companies to think about how to focus on process management tool.  ERP development and last decade development of BPM (Business Process Management) software made PLM developers to think how their software an help manufacturing companies to manage engineering and manufacturing process more efficiently and how to include “process management” into PLM discipline. Modern PLM backbones provide a wide spectrum of capabilities to model and execute engineering and product development processes.

Engineering Processes Mapping

The idea of mapping between business applications and organizational processes was born first in ERP software. The components of ERP suites, actually, provided one-to-one mapping of finance, procurement, manufacturing and other organizational processes to ERP. Combined with business data stored in ERP backend, these applications widely used to run a company. Now, what happens in product development and engineering? Every PLM implementation requires mapping of product development processes

What makes engineering processes different and complicated? I’d like to mention three aspects that characterize engineering and product development differently from other company processes.

Diversity of requirements.

Ask 2 engineers about something and you can end up with 3 opinions about how to do that. Every manufacturing company runs their development shop differently. This is the reality that cannot be eliminated. There are some patterns and rules that make companies in the same industry segment do it similar, but the diversity will exist even in this case. When it comes to the implementation, it creates a need for an additional investment to make a system adjusted to the requirements of a specific customer.

Execution flexibility

In my view engineering processes has a higher level of expected flexibility. Most of the product development and engineering processes are not linear. It is very hard to create this non-linear mapping with all possible exceptions and potential situations. People’s demand is to have an additional level of flexibility during the process run time. It creates an additional level of complexity.

Continues changes

Manufacturing companies these days are under high pressure of improvement. Much of them is related to the product development, engineering and manufacturing. Taking into account that, engineering and product development process implementation will require changes more often. This is creating a significant impact on process mapping that are under on-going change.

Sustainable PLM Implementation

One of the things that important to mention in the context of specific characteristics of manufacturing and engineering processes is how to establish a sustainable PLM implementation. My hunch is that “flexibility” is a key factor. However, I think, it will be way too simple to say only that. The increased flexibility in process management creates a situation when a definition of a process changed. I’d like to specify three elements related to the definition of what I called – sustainable PLM: mainstream organizational processes, data transparency, informal communication. The first one is actually formal organizational processes that run an organization. Informal communication is a level that compensates the need in execution flexibility. Data transparency mechanism creates way people can leverage organizational data assets in order to run processes in a more efficient way.

Three main characteristics make Engineering Processes problematic when thinking about PLM – diversity of requirements, execution flexibility and continues change. Traditional process management methods are useless in such a type of situation. This is a place where a new way to organize processes needs to come. It includes new methods to work with data and social technologies to make a communication more efficient.

The future of efficient PLM processes

Processes. Every organization is driven by processes. Even if you don’t have any process management systems, processes are there. You probably manage them using paper trails – this is not very efficiently for 21st century :). I know lots of organizations are running their organizational processes using email – this is better, but it is still “very 1985″. More and more manufacturing companies these days are thinking how to improve product development processes. For many of them, it is not only how to improve engineering to manufacturing processes, but how to establish a system that can take end-to-end processes management involving customers, sales, marketing, engineering, manufacturing, support and others.

How to make process management efficient is a question many companies are asking these days. The traditional process management systems are too complicated. They require lots of preparations, upfront planning and, at the end, they are very expensive. Another customer demand is flexibility. Very often, the process definition is not clear. There is an advantage of having system that can provide a better level of flexibility to adapt to existing customer needs and requirements “as you go”.

How to make system flexible and powerful at the same time? Maybe it is a time to look for experience gathered by web companies and social networks? I was reading an interesting CNBC article few days ago – Twitter taking businesses to new heights. Story tells how customers of Virgin America airline are communicating with customer support and actually influence some customer related business processes directly from the plane wifi system via Twitter. Navigate here to read the story. The following passage very insightful.

As the official voices of @VirginAmerica, the team’s goal is to respond in under 15 minutes, but according to Amrich, staffers are usually able to reply in less than five. They have nearly 435,000 followers, and he estimates they send about 50,000 tweets a year, handling everything from seat changes to snack requests. And many of those tweets come from 35,000 feet.

Maybe you’re mad. Maybe you’re not. Maybe you just want something to be different,” said Amrich. “But you can talk to us right there, from the plane, using our WiFi. We can actually message the plane and figure out what’s going on and fix it for you right there. This is letting us do everything in real time.”

I found the example of twitter usage to run efficient people faced processes very interesting and powerful. It provides a way to communicate using modern social “lingua franca” adopted by a new generation of people. In the past, communication using email was a mandatory requirements for every business process management systems. Today, social networks and direct communications are taking this place.

Manufacturing companies are looking how to improve product development processes. One of the trends in business communication is to use modern web and social network tools and practices. Users are looking how to adopt the same communication methods they are familiar in everyday life. Twitter is one of them and it can become a powerful communication weapon. More and more enterprise companies are adoption “social communication” as more powerful and flexible way to organize their processes.

Processes, Collaboration and Task Lists

People often generalize processes. One of the ideas to apply structured process flow on everything. I will take about it later. At the same time design activities, collaboration or changes can be quite different and introduce variety of management difficulties.

I found very interesting to comparison of two opposite things – structured workflow and real time collaboration. The confusion between them, actually, leads to some implementation difficulties and potentially wrong conclusions about tool selection.

Design Collaboration

Product development has many different stages. On the very early design stage, people can collaborate freely without any special constraints and dependencies. This is a time when “designer” is a king. Designer can make any change. However, if a team of people involved into this processes, they definitely need to collaborate (=work together). So, this type of “design collaboration” can be characterized by a very non-formal relationships and communications. The most widely used tools for such communication is email. I don’t think that email is actually the most optimal way to collaborate, but ease of use and wide spread of emails make it an obvious choice. Managing of the emails can be a difficult task for every person. In addition, email becomes very inefficient when you work with CAD systems. Because of technical constraints, you cannot always use attachments, and it causing losing of context in communications.

Change Processes

When product development moves to the next maturity phases beyond the design, communication between people in the organization becomes more complicated. It, obviously, requires more people to be involved to the processes of changes. At this time, changes are controlled by a group of people and requires some synchronization before any change may occur. It may happen when a product is actually already manufactured or, for example, during the advanced stages of “engineering to order” manufacturing. Such situations require more coordinated work between people in different departments, which normally is going beyond just “raising hands” or “sending emails”. The most often used procedures at this stage are “approval processes”. PDM and PLM systems have an ability to make such implementations.

Processes and Tasks

One of the obvious outcomes of processes and workflow implementations is the need to manage lists of tasks for people. When it comes to “change approval” or “change implementation”, the need to manage tasks becomes critical. The important element of process management is the ability to make tasks visible and transparent in the organization. It includes task assignment, task distribution, follow up and changes. A good process or workflow tool needs to provide ways to accomplish that. User interface is an important element in the process implementation story. As a user, I need to have my tasks to show up. List views are one of the most obvious ways to do so. That’s why, Microsoft Excel becomes popular. However, the ease of list creation in Excel is combined with a complicated way to maintain collaborative changes, assignments and follow up. Microsoft SharePoint with Excel Services provided an interesting approach to manage Excel lists. Other alternatives can include “work management” or “task management” tools. Lists are still a very important element of user interface there.

People and Processes

The most complicated element in all process implementations are people. To capture processes is not a trivial task. Processes can be undefined, fuzzy and even conflicting. Process Management, normally, cannot solve problems related to the process capturing and organization. The flexibility of tools is an important factor here. However, even with a full flexibility, this process can go wrong.

The requirements can be different depends on a type of communication. Design team can collaborate via phone, email or Excel spreadsheets. When it comes to more complicated communication, process management and workflow tools need to be involved. However, ad-hoc collaboration, structured workflow and even a very sophisticated processes management tool, can use a simple list-based user interface concept to communicate with users and provide task visibility.

Picture credit (c) Can Stock Photo

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