Companies that sell complex control systems, software or machines can often find that the handover – or hand-holding, as it often seems – is still going on months or even years after the final commissioning date.
In some cases, the process of documentation, training, commissioning and support never really ends. Problems experienced by the end user get passed back to the suppliers involved – then back to the systems integrator, who may need to call the machine builder, who may in turn contact a control systems designer.
Suppliers often find they are out of pocket in trying to meet these obligations, while at the same time leaving their customers less than satisfied with the end result.
It was this problem, coupled with a fast-growing product range, that prompted control systems supplier Omron Electronics to spend £2m developing a software package that makes its engineers’ knowledge available to customers through a CD-Rom mega-manual.
`About 80% of our engineers’ time is spent solving the same problem but with different customers,’ says Clive Lattimer, managing director of Omron. `Some engineers enjoy that. But we want to release our most skilled people to do other, more valuable things, instead of spending time repeat-problem solving.’
The CD-Rom technical manual allows companies throughout the supply chain to access a step-by-step engineering guide to solving their particular problem, without having to call their supplier.
This is possible because while being compiled the manual will have been contributed to at all stages of the design and supply of a product or system.
In the case of a controls supplier like Omron, which supplies machine builders, customers can add their own technical knowledge to the CD-Rom. This also applies to the system integrators, who can add data on the design specification, the functional design and implementation software. The end result is a manual containing the accumulated knowledge of the entire production process.
Information is provided in the form of diagrams, video explanations and technical advice which provides users with clear, interactive training and support.
The guts of the system, called Knowhow, is a Microsoft Windows-compatible software that provides a set of standards for capturing, labelling and retrieving data. It has been designed to allow engineers, rather than IT specialists, to input the data.
Omron engineers adapted their Knowhow system from scratch because of what they saw as shortcomings in existing software. These tended to make interactive manuals awkward because they did not allow small amendments to be made to take account of changes in specification of plant or equipment. Changes needed expensive programming time to adjust the manual, involving IT experts rather than the engineers who had the most knowledge of the machine application.
Also, many other software systems do not enable users to trace a path backwards, as one would if leafing backwards through a manual.
`We went to software suppliers at first,’ says Lattimer. `But the kind of database systems they were suggesting were miles and miles away from what we required.’
Omron’s Knowhow software was developed entirely by engineers at its north London base. It is about to be distributed across the entire $5.5bn Omron group: first in the Japanese market, followed by the US, and finally the rest of the European market
However, the system will not be unique to Omron. In a separate deal with Cambridge-based multimedia group Doyen Media, the Knowhow system will soon be made available more widely through the sale of product licences.
These will be sold to anyone, including Omron’s rivals, which will allow any machine builder or components supplier to offer customers a similar kind of service.
Prices have yet to be fixed, but are understood to range from a few thousand pounds for a manual for a single machine, to tens of thousands for a system dealing with an entire manufacturing department in a large company.
Added to these costs is the time required for a company’s engineers to input the data – the knowledge that makes Knowhow work.
That in itself could be a time-consuming and expensive operation, forcing some potential users to think hard about the savings they expect to make by allowing Knowhow to free-up the time their engineers spend in support functions.
Knowhow will be demonstrated at a touring programme of Omron Technology Insights, presented in association with The Engineer, which starts at Hampden Park, Glasgow on October 26-27. For further details, see Events, page 20.