Teamwork wins

Save time and money by using collaborative techniques in the workplace, says John MacKrell.

Companies wanting to improve teamwork among staff in different locations are increasingly using collaboration techniques. A variety of technologies to support this are now commercially available, including synchronous meeting solutions, co-modelling systems, visualisation software and digital mock-up.

These tools use web technology and the internet to allow people, regardless of location, to interact, resolve problems and work together online. This is much faster and more effective than using teleconferences, faxes, and email and is also more economical and efficient than getting everyone together for face-to-face meetings.

This means collaboration techniques take a few minutes to resolve problems that otherwise would require days because of communication difficulties. This is especially true when synchronous visual-collaboration meeting tools are used to help people in different locations simultaneously view the same CAD model on their desktops, discuss it interactively online through pointers and annotations, and resolve issues in real-time.

One manufacturer described a design project where two weeks of traditional communication between its US facility and the company’s design centre in Europe had not produced a solution to a problem. Then a synchronous collaboration meeting was implemented and a solution was reached in two half-hour online sessions.

However, the most far-reaching impact of collaboration technology is not that companies can speed up current methods of operation, but can change the way they operate. Web-based collaboration tools are producing major shifts in organisations, workflow, geographic distribution, and relationships among companies.

There is a trend towards business decentralisation, and online collaboration is important in achieving outsourcing through supply chains, supporting strategic partnerships in extended enterprises, and supporting dispersed organisations.

The changes that decentralisation bring to a corporation are supported by collaborative technologies, so they capture the interest of chief executives.

Collaboration supports decentralisation of engineering and manufacturing operations by providing a framework for distributed working, supporting processes that integrate tools and products, providing methods to help users visualise and access information, supporting data consistency and integrity, and allowing geographically distributed product development.

To collaborate effectively people need to find the data that is relevant to the project. The implementation of collaboration tools within product lifecycle management (PLM) provides consistent access to the full product definition, powerful search facilities, access to corporate knowledge, and links to other people throughout the extended enterprise. Some of the primary benefits of collaboration appear in the following areas of the PLM process.

 – Change Management and Design Review: with product development distributed across a number of sites, resolving changes can be problematic. For example, parts developed by different designers may not fit together or function properly in the overall assembly. Collaborative design review and change management processes help clarify communication, identifying clashes and interferences, visualising alternatives, and otherwise streamlining the change approval process.

 – Manufacturing Planning: manufacturing staff can use collaboration to help improve their production processes, plant designs, and tooling, by providing earlier analysis of manufacturing processes’ impact on product designs. They can use collaborative, online meetings to review designs and change orders with the design team, interact early with tooling designers, verify tooling assembly and operation, review manufacturing process plans and factory layouts, discuss manufacturing problems with suppliers, and co-ordinate tooling among dispersed sites.

 – Sales and Bidding: collaborative applications allow customers using the internet to locate and explore products in which they are interested. In the bidding process, all departments can use collaborative sessions to do joint, real-time reviews of product options, alternatives, and concepts. This is faster, more efficient, and produces more accurate and cost-effective bids than typical manual methods.

 – Maintenance and Support: collaborative tools support maintenance and support activities in many industrial sectors. Animation and simulation demonstrate how products work, are assembled and are maintained. Web-based product support and maintenance systems provide owners, engineers, operators, and maintenance staff with up-to-date information online, even from remote sites. Shared product data can be exchanged in real-time between maintenance engineers and the support office, with guidance and suggestions explored interactively in shared collaboration sessions.

PLM benefits people throughout the organisation. It enhances the business performance of the enterprise by supporting initiatives such as supply chain management, concurrent engineering, integrated product development, design collaboration, and globalisation: initiatives that can make or break a company.

Because it enables businesses to bring innovative and profitable products to market effectively, collaboration in PLM environments has become a requirement for effective business operation.

John MacKrell is senior consultant at PLM consultant CIMdata