Why Knowhow counts

Dave Wilson went to see some new software that has been developed to ease the entire design process

There is an old saying that goes `what you don’t know won’t hurt you.’ For design engineers, however, nothing could be further from the truth. In the design and commissioning of a machine, for example, what counts is how much knowledge about the machine that you can impart to everyone along the way.

That is the idea behind `Knowhow’, a software methodology from Omron that allows everyone in a design chain from designer to end user to access relevant information when and where they need it. That’s because a key to reducing costs, time and risk, and increasing machine availability, lies not just with the supply of components and systems that comprise the machines themselves. As important is the accompanying supply of expertise and experience.

Any supply chain follows some basic paths. These could be from a component or system supplier such as Omron, through to a panel builder, on to a systems integrator and finally to an end user. Alternatively, the chain could flow from the component supplier through to an OEM to the end user. Working in parallel with this supply chain structure are specialist distributors and project management companies.

While much effort has concentrated on how to get the physical system from its origin to its destination in the most efficient way, the key to reducing costs also lies within the supply of expertise and experience alongside the physical deliverables. In other words, the `knowhow’ of all the organisations involved in the supply chain. In practice, the experience and expertise supply chain follows much the same path as the physical supply chain.

During the design and development of a new machine, design engineers must not simply anticipate the present needs of their customers, but also appreciate any future needs that may arise. It is also important that feedback from the customer on the use of the machine can be used to improve the acceptability or performance of the machine in the future.

Once a machine has been delivered and installed, the engineer involved in the commissioning on behalf of the OEM is reliant on the locations of expertise within his own organisation to ensure that the commissioning phase runs on time. Here, it is important that he understands the mindset of the machine designer so that the system works as intended. The OEM must also be capable of delivering customer service that matches the requirements of the customer. In an end user environment, the machine should be easy to set up and have a high availability. If it is not, it will result in higher costs for the customer and more downtime.

At present, experience and expertise flows down the supply chain in two ways: on paper and in the heads of key personnel. Neither system is optimal.

Given the weaknesses in these two transport mechanisms, Omron set out to develop a better way of transferring knowledge through and between organisations. In the development of the `Knowhow’ system, it was obvious that the system should become a central knowledge repository.

It was obvious too that the systems should be effective at both capturing information and allowing the user to access it in a timely and useful fashion. Finally, it must grow with the user.

The capturing mechanism is dubbed Authoring. It is possible to author in information about product specifications, design information, operational type guidelines as well as technical support information.

For the user access methodology to work effectively, it had to deliver the expertise and experience in a digestible style and format that any user could accept and make use of.

In defining how the authoring process would work, it became obvious that experience and expertise would need to be entered into the system as text files, rather than scans, in order to enable sophisticated searching to take place. There was also a requirement for other forms of more advanced kinds of information such as animation and video. While video can convey a lot of information to a user in a short space of time, such as how to replace a battery in a PLC, an animation can better highlight the assembly and disassembly of a complex part, such as how to wire up an inverter or perform maintenance on a filling valve.

In addition, there was a need to develop better methodologies for delivering information about how to troubleshoot equipment once it is in the field. Commonly, flow charts are used in industry to aid with this process. But even where trouble shooting appendices use flow charts, it is often difficult to deliver much information because of the constraints of text size. Omron’s Knowhow solution has extended the flow chart concept by allowing developers to make a flow chart multidimensional by adding more information and links to other relevant areas of knowledge in the system.

The access mechanism for the Knowhow system allows the user to jump to other `silos’ of information on the system. For example, the user can skip quickly to data in a design environment from a training environment. The system also has a search capability, allowing the user to identify all the relevant media by context.

During the development process, the structure of the Knowhow system was also extended beyond the confines of collecting and distributing just Omron’s expertise. Every organisation in the supply chain has its own experience and expertise to offer its customers, and these users can capture and distribute this information too.

Omron believe that if the entire supply chain adopts the `Knowhow’ system, then the slow linear delivery of experience and expertise could be transformed.

Omron Tel: 0181 450 4646