Collaboration is the New Integration
For anyone who designs, builds, or installs industrial equipment, Integrators provide a valuable service of bringing together pieces of a production system so they can work together to provide a custom solution. The challenge has always been to get these groups to work together to create a solution that is better than the sum of its parts.
The standard for integration has largely been project management. If you make sure your suppliers meet their promise dates for equipment, costs are controlled and the project schedule is met, you have succeeded. Today that bar is too low. These suppliers and customers need to work together to engineer a better solution that draws on the talents of these teams so they can understand what is needed and how to continuously improve on system design.
To do this, integrators must become collaborators. To say it another way, integrators need to enable communication and provide access to data that allows everyone to make informed decisions quickly. There are several areas where the nature of the data and its use are impacted by collaboration. These include product design, design review, corrective actions, and overall team communication.
File based CAD design systems are inherently difficult to manage. Software companies develop complex file management systems to control versions and warn you if it thinks you are looking at old data. When dealing with outside vendors who are often using a different design software, it is necessary to translate data using neutral file formats like STEP or IGS to convert files into your preferred format. This is cumbersome and often the source of problems with designs being out of date or incorrect.
The better method is to organize design information in a database. Remove the individual files and read data from many different systems directly into a common framework. The image below shows the architecture of one such solution from Dassault Systèmes. Their 3DExperience platform allows engineers from many different companies to view the exact same data. The data stays in its native format and functions as a single source of truth for design.
3DExpereince Platform from Dassault Systèmes
As an engineer there are few things that are more frustrating than finding our you are working with old or inaccurate data. If decisions are being made in silos or data is not being managed correctly, it is common to come to a review meeting to find out that design criteria have changed, or a new product design has not been properly distributed amongst the team. By having all the data in a common database these problems are greatly reduced.
Instead of using PowerPoint and marked up images to review design progress, use the actual live data that shows all parties contributions in one place. This allows engineers to see how their designs may impact other aspects of the system where they are not responsible or had not considered.
The image below shows a digital twin for a robotic cell where engineers have been programming and balancing the workload for a new product. In addition to the robots and tools, the models show the placement of all electrical panels, where conduit will be run for the wiring, the fencing that needs to be ordered, and the access points for operators to not only load parts but also service the equipment.
Example: Digital Twin in Robotic Cell Design
This common view allows all stakeholders to see how their designs impact the aspects of a project. If a robot must move to reach a location, there are often multiple choices of where it can move. By seeing where the conduit is located on the ground and how the fence line is currently constructed, the engineer can look for a valid solution that has minimal impact on the rest of the system.
So, what do we do when a problem is identified? Many integrators use “open items” or “punch lists” that are maintained by the product or program managers. Weekly meetings are held and the “open items” list are reviewed ad nauseum. Was progress made? When will it be done? Is the solution we talked about last week going to work? The intermittent communication forces everyone on the project to listen to updates that may not impact them and delays the communication from one meeting to the next.
A better solution is a platform with real time updates. A system where tasks are assigned, and dates are given. The ability to access the information from anywhere and a status that is always update to date. The speed of communication and the immediacy of the data allows project timelines to be compressed and the right people to see correct information when it is needed. The video below goes into more detail on one such solution.
Why not have the social media equivalent of a project news feed? A place where people can post the latest activities in their part of a project. Place where important information about a project can be posted and a place where relevant public information can be distributed effectively to a team. Email is an antiquated way to communicate to many people at the same time. People using “reply all” litter our inboxes with information that has a very slight chance of mattering.
Through social media style presentation, the use of hashtags, and the dynamic formation of teams, we can sift through a lot of data to create our own custom view of a project. It essentially allows us to pull information as we need it rather than looking through all the information to find what we need. This collaboration will allow us to reduce the volume of unnecessary emails and present information in a way that helps us all be productive not just busy.
Example: Social Media Style Project Feed
All companies need to continuously reinvent themselves to survive and thrive. Integrators need to enable collaboration to become better versions of themselves moving forward.