Digitizing Work, Making System Data Usable
August 9, 2017
Over decades, industry has digitalized its processes. And yet crucial processes are still controlled and documented using paper or Excel sheets. The result is often a gap between the actual workflows and the digital processes. Until now, the focus of digitalization was almost exclusively on the data generated in product development, production planning, production or service. ECS in Neumarkt now presents a software that digitalizes the work processes themselves: the Process GUIde.
The larger the parts of the value chain, supported by industry software, the more complex is the value creation itself. From initial ideas and early product sketches, through partial models and the complete DMU to calculation results and various forms of bills of material - everything is digital. This has made the parallelization of process steps possible and much easier and faster. A new part is quickly modeled and tested, possible component collisions can be avoided from the start, the virtual commissioning of the machine at the manufacturer shortens the commissioning at the customer dramatically. But for various decision-making processes you have to be almost a wizard to quickly gather all the data you need from the different systems.
All IT tools are designed to help users create and manage their data with little effort. But when it comes to enterprise-wide data, as in the case of product life cycle management (PLM) or enterprise resource planning (ERP), the functions are so complex and extensive that it is not easy for an occasional user to get along. This is one of the main reasons that tables and forms become not less but rather more.
Let us take an example from practice. Every year, a larger company in the automotive and supply industry develops hundreds of new parts within its product lines. For quality assurance, detailed documentation, testing and approval of the steps needed for each new part are necessary in development and production. This includes material and tools as well as numerous data from the individual process steps. The same applies to a much larger number of parts which have either been minimally altered or whose manufacturing processes have changed.
Involved are employees of various departments. For example, a component group leader, a production planner or an authorized representative for critical processes. Neither of them works with the PLM or ERP system on a daily basis, and is certainly not a user of CAD, calculation or software development programs, which may be related to PLM and ERP. And even if all the data were available in a single system for a particular audit or approval process, it would be hard for the decision maker to find exactly the right one. Especially as the most important decisions usually also have the greatest time pressure.
Mastering IT complexity
The use of IT systems with their own data models and functional principles has brought additional complexity to the industry. In addition to the constantly growing complexity of the products and the processes of their development and production, which is based on the change of mechanical and mechatronic products to digitally connected systems. The resulting complexity requires interdisciplinary collaboration and cannot be mastered without IT support.
Expertise and systemic knowledge are required but, of course, essentially limited to the main users. This situation had already led to customer requirements for ECS, which resulted in standard software. Founder and Managing Director Wolfgang Dietzler: "Our eCenter Suite in its current version 7 is the answer to the complexity of the use of large systems in particular. eCenter offers a simple, roll-specific interface, which is precisely tailored to individual users of a system, such as Siemens PLM Teamcenter, that he needs for his role in the company, which has helped many of our customers become faster and more efficient. "
Now the service provider goes one step further. Either as an extension of eCenter or even as a standalone, ECS offers a new tool that digitalizes entire workflows. The Process GUIde combines the sequence of tasks specified in a department, which have to be carried out by different parties for a specific work step, with the data that is necessary for certain functions of different systems, without the person concerned even having to know these systems. It sounds more than reasonable, and yet this software is currently unrivaled. But the IT technology - and the existence of platforms such as eCenter - actually enable us just today to realize those kinds of functionalities even in combination with highly complex large-scale systems.
Figure 1: Structured operation
What are the special challenges that justify such a special software? They are diverse, but the most important ones can be summarized in a few points, which are very similar for various fields:
- An operation often extends from its initiation to completion over several months. During this period, a participant must always be able to gain access, to keep up with the latest information, and then to carry out a new work step.
- In most cases, an employee is involved in several such operations, which are not started and ended at the same time, and are therefore in different states. All the more important is the quick assessment of what is to be done next.
- Usually, several people are involved in the same process in different roles. Quickly see who has already completed which part of his tasks or work steps up to what level, decides on his or her own effectiveness.
The fast overview of status and data is crucial in every case, and searching in paper documents and various individual systems is the worst possible method.
Quick overview and access
The first innovation of the Process GUIde is to list all running workflows in a specific professional environment, such as change management or production release, and it lives up to its name - the GUI stands for Graphical User Interface. In the overview window, the user sees immediately on a small symbol, how many work steps the process composes. And the coloring of the symbol already indicates whether the work steps are planned (gray), in progress (yellow), or completed (green). The focus is on the state and the control of the work process, the tool is not to replace the processing of the data in the authoring systems. And it is also not a substitute for the workflow functionality of any authoring system, which always concerns only the data of this particular system, but not superordinate and transversal processes.
By clicking on an operation, an overview of the work steps opens, which goes one step deeper into the detail. The tasks are listed for each step. For example, this could be the change request, the definition of the requirements and the proof and the examination of their fulfillment. In this case too, it is immediately possible to see how far the work steps have progressed in the processing. Also, which are the critical and absolutely necessary tasks, because they are highlighted in red.
Figure 2: Process GUIde workplace
The symbol is a small square that contains a lot of information and automatically adapts to the status during processing. Gray (grayed out) means that the task has already been completed and cannot be edited again. A checkmark is always used for tasks that have already been completed, but a checkmark in a blue box means this can be edited again. An empty square shows this work is not yet started, and a right triangle indicates current work or possible re-editing.
Up to this point, everything is about a quick view on the current state of a specific operation. By clicking on a concrete step, you are now ready to process individual tasks. These can concern, among other things, the creation of a master data record by entering the metadata used in the company as standard; the description of the operation; the assignment of documents or models; the creation of a workplace; the detailed description of requirements; assigning a task to an employee; the issue of a release.
Depending on the individual case, the Process GUIde provides direct access to the required data via the required system functions. The user just puts the terms and expressions that are important to him and the tool accesses the functions of the relevant system in the background and displays the required data or models. He does not need to know which system is managing his data and what functions must be called for their display or editing. That's what the new software takes away from him.
A small but not unimportant additional function replaces the stickers, which are widely used in paper documents to add any notes on a document. The user can now add a freely formulated comment to each task in each work step.
It is obvious that the workflows can not only be accelerated this way, but also lead to qualitatively much better results. The overall increase in complexity caused by the use of IT systems is reduced by largely taking away the need to directly access the systems from the employees. This is the only way to realize the full benefit of the data actually already available for the company - and not just for the respective department in which they are generated.
System integration according to client's request
How does this work? How does the Process GUIde know which function and which system can supply which data, whether ERP or PLM is the leading system and, therefore, responsible for the creation of the master data records? This is the result of a cooperation between ECS and its customers, which has also been greatly simplified and in which the user plays the leading role.
First, the customer must describe the processes of a department and, in the language of the company, organize them into work steps and tasks as they are to be found by the participants in the process GUIde. For this purpose, he uses the functions of the tool to create and manage workflows. By means of a mock-up, however, the Process GUIde also allows the detailed sketching of the graphical user interface. Which data should be displayed in which form? Which kind of interaction should be provided to the user? And how should its activities be visualized? This mock-up is particularly important as it allows the demonstration and coordination of the planned new way of working with all involved parties before the tool is used. Finally, the implementation of the mock-up with the respective systems involved is the task of ECS. The fact that the company-specific technical language of the individual areas is absolutely at the forefront means that the effort to learn how to use the new tool is close to zero.
The intelligence of the tool, which is used in the background for the automated use of various IT systems, is based on system integration, which ECS implements with the IT managers of the company using the mock-up of the department. There are no restrictions on certain systems or individual manufacturers. Whatever is used by the customer for CAD, software development, data management or test runs, the new tool is used precisely for the purposes that the departments need in their workflows. In the background, a correspondingly modeled BPM process controls the individual actions and dependencies of the tasks in the work steps.
Figure 4: Process GUIde BPM model
Customers who already use eCenter can get the Process GUIde as an extension module. For them, of course, the effort for system integration is also sizably less, since eCenter has already been given considerable preparatory work, which is now reappearing.
However, independent of eCenter, the investment is likely to be worthwhile for many customers. It completes the very widespread, often annoying and frustrating situation that, despite high investments in numerous IT systems, only a part of the benefits that the company and its IT managers promised themselves to be achieved. Now, data is actually smart and can be used in full as information and corporate capital. The digitalization reaches the next level. The need is great.