While consistency may not be the most glamorous or talked about facet of overall quality, when it comes to efficient and profitable product development and manufacturing, it is essential. Poorly managed and inconsistent product documentation is arguably the most significant-and unnecessary-cause of product delays and cost overruns afflicting today's distributed, outsourced manufacturing organization.
Far too often, product data are scattered among departments, suppliers and outsourcing partners on different platforms, in different formats, with insufficient disciplines to avoid the costly use of outdated or incorrect information. The lack of a coordinated system for creating, revising, approving, storing and retrieving documents results in late products, quality problems, liability exposure, returns, reworks and scrap.
On the other hand, comprehensive product documentation that is managed by a single, accessible, organized system helps manufacturers achieve high quality, control costs and optimize manufacturing efficiency, especially when work is outsourced. Such record management prevents expensive mistakes and can be readily implemented.
Wise operations executives understand that product documentation represents the intellectual property-the core value-of a manufacturing enterprise. Transitioning is made easier if key engineering personnel depart, leaving documents as one of the most important tools for training their replacements, guide production and avoid redundant development. Accordingly, the health and worth of the business truly depend on maintaining and preserving the product record. Yet, sound management of product data remains atypical among mid-tier companies.
A proper system of record
Manufacturers with aggressive schedules for product introductions typically generate frequent engineering requests and engineering change orders, in large numbers, during short development cycles through prototyping, pilot runs, process debugging and initial production. Each change can entail multiple item attributes including, but not limited to, drawings, bills of materials, designated sources, nomenclature, work flows, assembly routines and test procedures.
Strict control of document versions is exceedingly important in distributed, outsourced manufacturing environments, where geography, time and language may separate participants. A system for document control must, at minimum:
• protect against unauthorized revisions
• ensure all revisions are approved before release
• provide the correct document version to the right parties
• verify that documents are properly reviewed
• specify the current status of any document
• preclude the use of obsolete
• import and track documents from outside sources
Companies realize great efficiencies during product development, when engineering, materials strategists, operations and suppliers work in parallel, in concert, from the same accurate product specifications. The fundamental principle of document management is: all information resides in one place.
When all documents reside in a central repository that can be easily accessed, producing documents to verify conformance with quality standards, such as ISO, becomes straightforward. Companies that produce equipment with life-critical functions must meet the stringent requirements of regulatory agencies for documentation. Prudent operations executives protect their manufacturing businesses from liability claims by ensuring they can easily extract documentation for an entire product history, to show how problems were identified and addressed, who authorized design changes, what suppliers provided which parts, what quality-control tactics were applied and how any complaints were handled.
To achieve a central, universally accessible repository of product information, many manufacturers are engaging in a new breed of document management capabilities encompassed in the form of Web-based product lifecycle management (PLM) services. Companies of all sizes can take advantage of this type of hosted Web service that lowers the risk, cost and information technology (IT) requirements associated with enterprise client-server solutions. Manufacturers are able to reduce errors in communication, as well as speed time to market as their businesses grow by providing a secure, collaborative online environment where they can selectively share product data and changes with contract manufacturers and offshore partners.
Outsourcing and mergers have complicated document management; at the same time, manufacturers have been forced to cut IT capital expenditures and staff to remain competitive. Every product document exchange and revision can introduce errors that could ripple through a distributed manufacturing enterprise without strict systems in place for document control. For many mid-tier companies, archiving paper documents has long since ceased being an option. Clearly, document management depends on some form of electronic data automation.
However, long dependence on paper systems, electronic spreadsheets, faxes and e-mail has led companies to approach document management on a department-by-department basis, as opposed to a holistic view. In this era of global enterprise, companies must enable business units at any site to share production documents with any other authorized party elsewhere in the extended manufacturing organization, including key collaborative suppliers. Data in separate silos cannot be readily coordinated for change control. Consequently, obsolete information could contaminate the engineering, manufacturing and supply chains.
Centralized, automated document control speeds process and product-change cycles, increases the quality and quantity of product description, alleviates liability concerns and improves organizational structure. Key contractors and suppliers with authorized on-line access know that they are seeing the same, current, validated documentation as the engineers and procurement officers who are their customers. Internally, each document can be tracked to assemble its complete history, when it was approved and what specific changes were made at each revision. Good document control systems remove ambiguity in product specification and lead to better quality, increased accountability and higher revenue potential. Today's most successful companies rely on these document control and process management practices to gain business advantage and have an edge on their competition.
Sidebar: Tech tips
• Poorly managed and inconsistent product documentation is a significant cause of product delays.
• Comprehensive product documentation that is fully managed by a well-organized system helps manufacturers achieve high quality, control costs and optimize manufacturing efficiency.
• Strict control of document versions is important in outsourced manufacturing environments, where geography, time and language may separate participants.
• In order to achieve a central repository of product information, many manufacturers are engaging in the document management of Web-based project lifecycle management services.