Why Use of Workflow Software is on the Rise

April 1, 2024
The convergence of increasingly complex work processes and industry’s ongoing labor issues are driving the growth of workflow software in manufacturing. The software’s ability to maintain compliance and ensure efficient production add to the benefits.

For manufacturers, workflow software is becoming a must-have tool. It can automate and monitor complex processes, boost efficiency, speed production, maintain schedules, ensure standards compliance and identify potential problems. And with the influx of technologies such as artificial intelligence, the capabilities of workflow software are increasing. 

To get a better understanding of the features and benefits of workflow software, Automation World tapped the minds of four industry experts: Jamie Boulanger Actemium Avanceon’s MES and analytics practice manager; Joshua Covault, industry process consultant for DelmiaWorks; Bryon Hayes, Industry 4.0 consultant with Grantek; and Allen Hackman, ServiceNow’s assistant vice president and general manager of manufacturing.

Automation World: What are the key features and capabilities of workflow software designed specifically for manufacturers?

Boulanger: The two key features that workflow software offers are efficiency and optimization. Workflows are automated and can be triggered by an action on a manufacturing line or by human interaction. Once workflow starts, the steps are automatically followed based on pre-configured processes. This is more efficient than passing documents, making phone calls or sending emails.

Covault: Integration is a key feature [of workflow software]. As the production process touches every functional area of a business, workflows not integrated into that process severely limit the usefulness [of workflow software] to the organization.

Communication between various functions within a workflow should happen automatically, without user input, as data moves from one party to the next. Communications should meet users where they are, whether it’s via email, text message or real-time updates.

Hayes: A key feature of workflow management software is the ability to visualize the manufacturing process, which enables the enterprise to monitor and analyze manufacturing workflows, so it can identify and correct bottlenecks. It enables lean manufacturing concepts, which leads to increased efficiency.

Hackman: I group workflow features and capabilities into three major areas: experience, productivity and knowledge. 

Manufacturing employees use dozens of software systems daily. Also, there are many systems they need to use that are too complex. Workflow software can integrate all the systems an employee needs to use within a mobile-friendly user interface.  

As for productivity, workflow software must focus on speeding up processes by removing latency, delays and manual steps. Automating these processes is the feature manufacturers require. 

Finally, industry is struggling with skills gaps and labor shortages, so capturing knowledge and presenting it to employees on-demand is vital. Imagine a support representative handling a difficult customer issue by phone. A robust knowledge base in the workflow software can offer recommendations and resources to help the agent diagnose the problem and provide solutions.

Automation World: How does workflow software streamline manufacturing processes and improve overall efficiency?

Covault: In manufacturing, revenue is generated by processing raw materials into goods. Resources consumed outside that process are non-value-added and contrary to revenue goals. Examples of waste are production readiness meetings, phone calls, emails and aging raw materials left in limbo after delivery. Workflow software eliminates this waste.

Hayes: Workflow software streamlines manufacturing through automation, which reduces human error and helps identify and reduce low-value manual processes. It also introduces a degree of process standardization, which drives efficiency and consistency.

Hackman: Workflow software’s main purpose is to improve efficiency. It digitizes the entire process so that when an issue arises, the software determines the severity or priority of an issue, routes it to the right persons, provides the necessary data to address the issue, recommends a solution, provides status to those impacted, and obtains approvals. By digitizing workflows, manufacturers gain valuable insights into a process, such as how often an issue occurs, how long it takes to resolve or if there is a growing issue trend. With these insights, leaders can easily identify where improvements are possible.   

Automation World: Can the software handle complex workflows and adapt to the unique requirements of different manufacturing industries?

Boulanger: Absolutely. Workflows can make decisions based on parameters without human intervention. If the process is mappable on paper, it can be implemented in workflow software. For example, if a humidity test is within acceptable parameters, production continues. However, if humidity starts to approach the upper limit, but is not out of spec, notifications can go to staff to inform them if action is required immediately or if they should simply monitor the situation. Bottom line, if you can speak a work process in sequence and verbalize decision processes, then the process can be handled in workflow software.

Hackman: Through years of working with workflows, I’ve not seen a workflow too complex for modern software. Workflow software is configurable to meet the needs of complex processes, including those requiring data from other sources. Workflow platforms can integrate with multiple back-end systems and connect workflows to extend outside the company and interface directly with customers and suppliers.  

As for adapting to the different industries, the answer is yes. Many processes are common regardless of industry and, even when an industry has a unique need, the ability of workflow platforms to integrate with other solutions makes adapting easy.  

For example, the route to market is different between an automotive OEM, a consumer goods manufacturer and an industrial equipment manufacturer. One sells services through a dealer channel, one sells through a retailer or even direct to consumers and the other sells business-to-business, respectively. Via integrations, adapting to different audiences is a breeze. 

The key to success is implementation. For software to be effective, manufacturers must have a good understanding of how their processes work, their user requirements and the systems they integrate with. And the data they use must be accurate. If all that’s done, then the sky is the limit.    

Automation World: How does workflow software integrate with existing manufacturing systems, e.g., ERP, MES, SCM?

Boulanger: Workflows eliminate reliance on people to perform the interface between systems.  Workflows can store data into databases, call APIs or drop files in specific locations as a human would do manually. Almost any way a manufacturing system is integrated, it can be interfaced with workflow software.

Hackman: Workflow software is typically viewed as the system of action, or the system where work gets done. It’s not the system of record where master data and transactions occur, e.g., orders, billing or inventory. Therefore, via integration tools, master data and transaction data are pulled from the system of record as needed to support the processes residing in the workflow software. 

Commonly, data is sent back to the system of record for updating. If a delivery date change on an order is requested, for example, order data is pulled from the source ERP and presented to the customer in workflow software. The customer changes the order date, and the revised date is then sent back to the system of record and the data is updated in the source system.

Automation World: Can workflow software address compliance and regulatory requirements in the manufacturing sector?

Boulanger: Workflows can be created to handle any scenario and action that must be performed to maintain compliance. It can also be setup to make any number of notifications required, like notifying the proper people when something becomes a risk, removing the possibility of an operator to forget to perform a required task. For example, if a CO2 sensor presents an unsafe reading, a workflow can be triggered that would require action to address a potential leak and to notify the correct safety resources that employees may require health checks. 

Covault: In addition to removing obstacles to efficient production, truly integrated workflow solutions act as a digital storehouse and gate keeper for every movement, decision, supporting document, inspection and process step completed.  A single safe source of information, integrated workflow solutions can drive supplier compliance with raw-material delivery policies, proper documentation of inspection and remediation activities, and the elimination of defective products. Furthermore, the data stream, how it was collected and by whom, becomes easily reportable during regulatory audits.

Hackman: Another thing that workflow solutions do well is improve auditability and compliance. Since workflow software allows manufacturers to easily digitize manual processes, there is always a record of an issue submission, who worked on it and when, and who approved changes. 

From a compliance perspective, digital workflows help by forcing adherence to an approved process. Streamlining and mandating every step makes ensuring compliance easier. Also, with constantly emerging standards and changes to existing standards, workflow software makes it easier to change a process or create a new one, ensuring the adaptation process for new standards is doable in days or weeks versus months.

Hayes: Because workflow software drives consistency and standardization, it inherently addresses compliance to regulatory requirements. For example, the pharmaceutical industry requires manufacturers to document their manufacturing processes through standard operating procedures and work instructions. These tools are inherent in workflow software.

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