This article is intended to create a roadmap for digital transformation in manufacturing operations, with an example of applying improvement techniques to an engineering design team.
Engineering and design professionals often work in high-pressure, deadline-driven jobs. This is especially true when their design output is the product being sold by a company. Whether you are working with mechanical, electrical, hydraulic or software engineers, most managers struggle to meet deadlines and keep productivity high. Using a manufacturing digital transformation roadmap to improve the productivity of this group can lead to significant benefits for the business.
When we talk to customers and prospects about their engineering group, they focus on scheduling and project management as a solution to getting more productivity. There are additional tools that we should be looking at to implement technology to facilitate and speed the work of the engineers.
The reality is that better scheduling doesn’t create more capacity in a bottleneck. Increasing engineering team productivity can increase the capacity of this critical resource and get you more output than scheduling their work ever could.
Using Digital Transformation in Manufacturing to Address an Engineering Bottleneck
One of the main reasons business owners and managers look to increase engineering team productivity is that they recognize that the engineering group is a production bottleneck. They don’t always know what to do about this bottleneck, but they recognize it and want to improve it.
There is a well-established body of knowledge for dealing with bottlenecks, called the Theory of Constraints. The Theory of Constraints says there are 5 steps to dealing with a constraint in a process as shown in the following image.
Let’s look at how to apply these principles to improving engineering team productivity and therefore capacity.
Step 1 – Identify the Constraint
Most businesses have at most one or two constraints (aka bottlenecks). These can be a department in production, a machine, the delivery of a product from a vendor, or a team in the organization. Identifying the constraint is most easily done by looking at resources where work is accumulating in front of them and never that seems to get caught up.
In the case of engineering teams where there are bottlenecks or constraints, it’s important to take a step back and look at what kind of work is accumulating. These teams often do more than one type of task. They may be: working on the shop floor hands-on debugging their designs; sitting at a computer doing CAD work; sitting in sales meetings or other activities; visiting customer sites for site visits etc.
It is very important to be certain what kind of work is building up and not getting dealt with.
Step 2 – Exploit the Constraint
Exploiting your resource sounds bad, but what it means is that you put some effort into making quick improvements that help those resources get more done with what they have. In the case of an engineering team, this would mean either speeding them up – or removing unnecessary work.
Here is a place where digital transformation and classic approaches offer a lot of options. Some ideas might be:
- Hold more customer meetings with Microsoft Teams to cut down on travel time.
- Find ways to let the engineers work from home when they need some flexibility (don’t just write off the days they are unavailable as lost) with technology like Virtual Workstations.
- Reduce downtime by reducing meetings in general, and increasing services provided to the engineers so they spend less time on non-productive activities.
Step 3 – Subordinate Other Activities
Sometimes businesses push work at someone when there is no real way to get it done. Subordinating other activities basically means keeping the bottleneck distractions down. If work now done by an engineer (that is a bottleneck) can be done by another resource, then do so.
If sales are getting way ahead of the engineering team’s ability to keep up, then tell them to stretch their promised lead times to give some slack to engineering.
Using ERP systems or CRM software to communicate this information back to the sales and marketing teams can be a critical digital transformation that will improve throughput. Available to Promise and Capable of Promise are core features of ERP systems like Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central.
Using technology like this along with scheduling software, you can control the queue of work in front of each resource (engineer) based on the load.
Queue theory says that the longer a line is for a service or resource, the slower the resource will be able to work. The queue is the workload in the “inbox” of your engineering resource. Keep that queue manageable. Something always will interrupt and disrupt your plan. The more work in front of them, the worse the impact of those interruptions will be.
Step 4 – Elevate the Constraint
Usually, you’ll improve your process somewhat by the previous three steps, but maybe not enough to eliminate the backlog that you are faced with. Elevating the constraint basically means finding other (usually more expensive) ways to speed it up. This might mean some bigger dollar costs, but generally, this is where you will really improve the situation.
- Upgrade the computers used by engineering to eliminate wasted time – slow engineering computers can account for up to 20% of a busy engineer’s day.
- Upgrade the computer network connection – slow network cabling can slow data transfer and file loading.
- Look at the Engineering communication process with other departments (like supply chain) and investigate new software (like Product Configurators) that can increase capacity.
- Investigate offshoring engineering. With the technology available today, and the talent found overseas, you can find and empower remote engineers.
- NOTE: This same technology can let your own engineers work from home when they need to!
- Upgrade CAD and Design software. Every generation of design software is incorporating new and better time-saving tools.
- Identify products that can increase their throughput, like PDM (drawing management tools) and configurators such as DriveWorks which can be deployed to allow more junior engineers to automatically create drawings (after configuration by senior engineers) based on simple inputs.
Step 5 – Repeat
Your manufacturing digital transformation roadmap doesn’t end after step 4. It is unlikely you removed all bottlenecks from your business in your first round. In fact, it is literally impossible not to have a bottleneck. Something in your business prevents it from having an unlimited output, and that is your bottleneck. If you do a great job removing bottlenecks from engineering then it might move to production or sales. There is always a bottleneck. You can use these steps to overcome any of them.
Manufacturing digital transformation always allows for improvements to those bottlenecks.
At Sabre IT Solutions we’re very familiar with a number of technical tricks that can reduce engineering bottlenecks. You can listen to our recent podcast (or read the transcript) to learn about the different engineering design workstations available in the market. We also have started to really push out the idea of GPU Enabled Azure Virtual Desktop.
Azure Virtual Desktop is a new technology that allows an employee to use a low-end computer (like a dumb terminal) to access high-end systems and do really intense work. With this technology, engineers can basically work from anywhere at any time as long as they have an internet connection. Engineering and design (even video and graphic design) can use this technology to form workgroups that don’t need to be in the same building, nor even the same province or state.
Finally, slow network performance can have a real detrimental impact on engineers. The 100Mb network cable used to be state of the art, but today’s engineers should be on 1Gb or even 10Gb network cabling to make sure they transfer the data needed as fast as possible. We’ve seen dramatic increases in speed by upgrading older cabling and installing new ultra high-speed networking.
Want to learn more?
Are you are interested in learning more about manufacturing digital transformation for your engineering team? Read our blog for more information. If you are interested in our take on the top Engineering Workstations, you can listen to our podcast (on youtube) or read the transcript.
We are Azure experts and resellers as well as DELL, Lenovo and HP resellers. We have been working with engineering teams for over 20 years, including implementing and training Microsoft Dynamics ERP.