Amongst many changes in the engineering sector, over the past few years, advances in Engineering Applications have been impressive. Thanks to the developments in areas such as CAD and CAE, engineers can design products faster, cheaper and with better quality. In fact, some products could only be developed today because we have such applications to design themOn the other hand, the integration of product development processes and applications in an enterprise have not been easy and many challenges exist today. We will explore these challenges and suggest some solutions.
Product Development is more complex than ever with many disciplines involved, such as mechanical, electronics, software, biology and chemistry. Engineers from these different disciplines need to co-develop the products faster than ever before. In many cases, software engineers can be located in another country while they work daily with their counterparts under time, budget and quality constraints. They need optimized business processes and systems to support them.
Modern enterprises are run by many complex business processes and applications such as Customer Requirement Mgt (CRM), Product Lifecycle Mgt (PLM), Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), and Supply Chain Mgt (SCM). This is only a subset of many globally integrated process areas. Amongst them, PLM is the set of processes and systems that engineering uses the most.
Advances and Challenges
PLM started with CAD/CAE/CAM. If we look at the advances in CAD and CAE only, we would be impressed. Today the CAD applications are easier to use and engineers are co-developing products with partners across the ocean.
High level multiyear Roadmaps can be deployed in phases over the years which require well educated, well trained, capable Program Managers because of the complexities in such projects
The advances in CAE are even more impressive. Finite Element Analysis (FEA) applications can optimize designs automatically while solving design issues involving multiple physical disciplines such as structural, thermal, fluid flow, electromagnetics simultaneously.
While it is easier to dwell on the advancements, we want to focus on the existing challenges and suggest some ideas to resolve them. We will group the challenges and solutions in the following three aspects: People, Processes and Technology.
Amongst the above 3 areas, People is the most important. Over the years, vendors have improved their integration technologies, usability, etc. The applications became so powerful that it was probable that no one in a company could know the overall capabilities of an application. Just like many of us don’t know the overall capabilities of Excel, even we use it every day. Therefore a highly skilled and knowledgeable workforce is the essential.
Organizational structures of companies frequently change. Enterprises grow by acquiring others. Business priorities as well as financial outlooks change with the changing world markets. Many companies have outsourced/off shored some of their engineering workforce in the last decade. To be successful in such an environment, companies need to be flexible and agile.
To be flexible and agile they have to have the right people and the right culture. While there is a lot of literature on flexible and agile organizational structures, the most important component is the employee workforce with the right attitudes, knowledge and skills.
For many companies, the business processes are fragmented due to historical or geographical reasons. The fragmentation of processes may have good historical reasons but they need to be resolved to be efficient and effective. For example, there may be differences of opinion about which organization has the better engineering change management process. There are good reasons why change management might be different in software engineering than electromechanical engineering. How can change management be optimized?
Organizations can spend many months trying to reach a common process in areas like engineering change management. On the other hand, PLM applications have out of the box Change Management Workflows. While out of the box templates may not be sufficient in some cases, customizing a change management system is rarely the best approach. For such process optimization, companies can start with the vendor workflow templates and configure the application for their needs. Only in those few cases, is vendor configuration not enough, some customization might be needed.
Over the years, PLM applications used for engineering have grown bigger and better. They have much more functionality than before but are usually difficult to install and support.
One of the main challenges is the integration of different applications. Even if a company has the CAD, CAE and PDM applications from the same vendor, often the other applications such as GSC and ERP are from other vendors. Proper data definitions and integration layers need to be planned carefully for the overall optimization of the software environment.
As described above, the complexities of the modern technologies, changing markets and agile organizations require a highly skilled, knowledgeable, well trained and motivated workforce.