Improving Processes Through Shared Work

July 1, 2006
Plant managers are using collaboration tools to bring teams together to optimize production and speed time-to-market.

6 years ago, the Chicago-based Boeing Co. gained quite a reputation as a leader in collaborating with its vendors. At that time, Boeing gave its vendors access to collaborative software that let engineers join together in designing and producing aircraft. With the development of its 787 family of aircraft, Boeing has taken collaboration much farther by making its suppliers responsible for delivering design work as well as components.

Boeing created a design network that includes more than 100 vendor partners around the world. The design network is built on the product lifecycle management suite from Dassault Systemes, Paris, which includes Catia, Enovia and Delmia. Using the design network, Boeing and its vendors collaborate to build and test every aspect of the 787 plane and its manufacturing processes digitally prior to assembly.

The ultimate goal is to collapse the three-week assembly process down to three days. With 350 orders for the 787, the assembly time improvement will mean that Boeing can deliver 350 orders in three years rather than a decade. This is the kind of seismic shift that could help Boeing beat back its European competitor Airbus and retake its place as the world’s number one aircraft producer.

Collaboration in plant operations has grown substantially in recent years, as technology makes it easier for team members to communicate over shared simulation or computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Cross-discipline teams such as product development, manufacturing engineering and quality assurance are working together to speed the time a product moves from design to final production. Vendors are taking on collaborative responsibilities in developing control systems. Multiple plants are collaborating on schedules to best serve customer demand, which sometimes means two or more plants working together to push through customer orders.

Changed model

At Boeing, the ability to collaborate with suppliers has actually changed the way the company does business. “With the 787, we completely changed our business model,” explains Steve Murphy, process implementation leader, The Boeing Co. “Before, we supported all of the cost of collaboration. Now we’ve gone to a model where our partners share the risk with us.”

When Boeing first launched its design sharing in 2000, it supported the collaboration with both software and training. “When we first did design collaboration six years ago, we brought everyone on site,” explains Murphy. “They worked on Boeing software and took the required training. If they had questions, they called our Boeing site support.”

For the 787, Boeing created a collaboration model that shifted more of the responsibility and costs to its vendors. “Now they’re responsible for all of their own people’s time and all the computing costs, including hardware, software licenses, support and training,” says Murphy. “We looked at specifying software, but it was too chaotic. Instead, we came up with a commonality matrix. We make our architecture available, but it’s up to them what applications they use.”

When companies collaborate on design, questions of security and protection of intellectual property (IP) arise. At first, Boeing was cautious in sharing information with its vendors. “Open collaboration was initially a challenge to the protection of intellectual property, so we ran it as a black program, like a military program, where everything had to be shredded,” says Murphy. Murphy notes that Boeing had to be careful about what it learned about vendor processes, as well as being careful to protect its own IP.

In time, Boeing and its vendors pounded out agreements that helped them work together without risking the DNA of IP. The process of developing IP agreements, however, was not quick or easy. “That took us nine months and 323 iterations,” says Murphy. “It was only one page, but the nuances were very subtle. I felt like a lawyer, since each word had specific implications.”

As well as design collaboration, Boeing also collaborates on supply. The company turned to the industry hub, Exostar, of Herndon, Va., for supply management connectivity. Exostar is used to manage the complete order lifecycle and returns process across multiple tiers, and to track consumption and replenishment for Boeing’s Partner Managed Inventory program. The program—which is powered by E2open software—lets Boeing and its partners issue purchase orders, track purchase order changes, exchange advance ship notification, manage returns and track shipments across multiple tiers.

Vendor collaboration

Collaborating with vendors offers a number of benefits to plants. For one, plants are starting to lose some of their technical knowledge through cutbacks and the retiring baby boomers. In many cases, vendors have stepped up to replace that knowledge through collaboration. “If we can empower our customers with technology they haven’t developed or have lost the ability to use, then we’ll be more available and responsive,” says Scott Teerlinck, director of services for Rockwell Automation Inc., in Milwaukee. “That’s the collaborative approach. We recognize that if we do a world class job of collaboration, we’ll be viewed as a partner rather than a transactional supplier.”

Vendor collaboration can also take the form of support. If a company is having difficulty with equipment or a control system, the vendor can go on the client’s network and do some troubleshooting. One of the tricky aspects of this type of vendor collaboration is the security element. If the vendor can log onto its customer’s network for troubleshooting, then it can presumably also change programming for a programmable logic controller (PLC) or input/output devices (I/O), which could be dangerous.

“Security has always been an issue for dial-in troubleshooting,” says Rami Al-Ashqar, product manager at Bosch Rexroth Electric Drives and Controls, in Hoffman Estates, Ill. “Working remotely helps customers get their machine working quickly, and we use Web capabilities and visualization software to view the machine, but security has to be part of the set up.” Al-Ashqar notes that the information technology (IT) department is often brought in to help provide security for remote access. “IT can definitely do security now,” says Al-Ashqar.

Collapsing time

Collaboration is also being used to speed the time-to-market for new products. In the past, research and development (R&D) worked on a product until the design was complete. Then the design team tossed it over to the production engineers to figure out how to produce it. Finally, the quality team blessed the production process. The problem with this system is that the production and quality teams often had to toss the design back to R&D to resolve problems.

When these different teams collaborate during the design process, time collapses significantly. For one, R&D, production and quality can work simultaneously. For another, problems are caught and corrected before the product design is finished. “When multi-developers are working concurrently, it reduces development time,” says Steve Garbrecht, program manager for SCADA and platforms at Wonderware, an Invensys company in Lake Forest, Calif. “If the system being used in development is shared, you can propagate changes very quickly. You can make a template for the product and for its production and let everybody agree on it.”

The tools that plants can use for collaboration across disciplines are becoming more sophisticated. Enovia, developed by Dassault, helps Boeing collaborate with its vendors through a 3D look at production. Enovia is also used by internal teams as they move a product out of R&D and into production. “We deliver meetings that let viewers bring 3D parts into the viewer when they’re collaborating,” says Richard Semmes, Enovia’s strategy director for R&D. “We also bring in instant messaging for communication. So teams can bring a part into a 3D session to measure it, annotate it and discuss it—that’s true collaboration.”

Collaboration tools are helping multiple plants work together to serve customer demand. When managers at multiple plants share scheduling, the company can better determine which plant should do what production to meet demand. Collaboration can also help to determine which plants are performing most effectively and transfer best practices from one plant to another.

Multi-plant collaboration often results in more than one plant working to push through a customer order if that order is deemed more critical than other existing orders. “Another driving factor in collaboration that increases throughput is synchronizing production across an entire enterprise,” says Wonderware’s Garbrecht. “You may need two plants to deliver to a customer.”

Linking software

Another area of collaboration involves tying together a number of different software applications. As an example, companies are now using their manufacturing execution systems to access production data that lives in the enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. Likewise, ERP systems now dig into the manufacturing historian data to track production orders.

Collaborating across applications can result in a more efficient production process. “In some cases, I’ve seen plants get higher throughput and less downtime by collaborating between applications,” says Tom Fiske, senior analyst at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “A plant server may have hundreds of applications. Having them share information can be important.”

Collaboration has increased as tools to facilitate communication among teams, plants, companies and applications become more sophisticated. The benefits are clear. Companies use collaboration to become quicker at product development, more efficient in their manufacturing processes and increasingly agile in serving their customers.

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See sidebar to this article: Ensuring Compliance

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