Five recommendations for implementing workflow systems

Workflow software is a useful tool in many applications, from enforcing standards and compliance to feeding into MES systems. Here are some suggestions for implementing workflow software:

1. Define your objectives. For workflow software, you need to first discuss what you want to use the workflow software to do. Do you want it to enforce compliance, for example, or build a corrective action solution or provide offshoot functionality for a MES (Manufacturing Execution System)? Are you using it to interface plant-to-business applications? Workflow software needs to enforce a standard procedure or series of procedures. If you have processes that change all the time, workflow may be too structured for you to benefit. But to facilitate standard responses to activities or events, workflow software is a good solution.

2. Define subsets. Recognize and define the expanding subsets of workplace software (for example, fixed programming, limited variability programming, full variability programming, utility software, embedded software, firmware, etc.) and be specific when discussing and documenting software requirements, methods and objectives.

3. Document standard work. Ensure that the real production workflow is accurately documented and understood for all products and all variations before you start the project. And make sure you get the operators to agree and quantify the "standard work" (if it's available). If you don't do this up front and get everything documented, agreed on and the "future state" well understood, then you will end up running in circles.

4. Improving code. When you ask for additional product flexibility that will require workflow software code changes, allow sufficient time for your programmer or integrator to make the changes. Pushing them beyond their work capacity with unrealistic schedules can result in mistakes and project delays.

5. More workflow tips.

  • Do not be overly analytical and make it unnecessarily complicated.
  • Use templates to save a lot of time.
  • Use IEC 61131-3 for programming machine behavior.
  • Be sure to enlist the experience of all those who will come in contact with the workflow that you are trying to model or diagram.
  • Ensure proper channels of workflow. A proper design is essential to avoid delays in a workflow project.

Phase it in

It's a good idea to implement workflow automation software in two planned projects. Plan and execute the first workflow project within a limited domain, where the systems, responsibility and authority reside in one group. Once there is proven success with this project, the bigger projects that span groups can be tackled with knowledge and confidence in the workflow tool. The challenge on a bigger project that spans domains is selecting a project team and leader with the authority to make decisions and tradeoffs efficiently, with buy-in from all.

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