Modern technology development often spans many countries, with teams distributed in all corners of the globe. People refer to “concurrent engineering around the globe” and in most companies such practice is par for the course. Sites work with the same IT systems, each site has access to the same technical data. So true global product development with local specialties and hitch-free mutual interfaces is a modern-day reality. Or so we are told, in theory. Reality is not always so rosy. Companies often do have different IT systems – passed onto them by their predecessors or taken on through acquisition.
Modern companies try to spread work, flexibly – across sites. So sometimes activities might not be carried out by the most appropriate people. Even within development departments on the same site, the use of instruments and electro-technical equipment to develop products is far from ideal. The same applies to the programming of software in complex mechatronic systems.
It is still possible to link everything up, however, although this does mean harmonizing a number of factors and managers must be willing to make the right decisions. One key factor in this respect is organizational structure and its fit with IT. It is not difficult to create concepts for either, but implementation does take long-term management and commitment from plenty of people.
At one larger medium-sized company – medical technology, with more than 3000 employees at a variety of sites on different continents – such a transformation was carried out by staff at the Eislingen-based Steinbeis Transfer Center Innovation and Organization over a number of years.
The starting point: harmonize CAD systems. Installed at seven sites, with 16 programs made by different suppliers, some in 2D, some in 3D, these almost totally impeded cooperation. By involving all key sites a system was carefully selected and quickly introduced worldwide. This quick win was not only significant in establishing a new technology foundation, everyone everywhere saw that cross-site consensus was possible. Thanks to the new 3D CAD system it was then possible to develop products at more than one location and users soon requested a cross-site data and document management system.
At a local level, development could manage with simple data and document management systems. But now that everybody needed access to a variety of documents used in the development process, it was time for a comprehensive PDM/PLM system. This was intrinsically necessary to do justice to the wide variety of quality management systems. To select the right PDM/PLM system, the company had to take into account a variety of different types of products and development procedures – without overcomplicating the system. In doing so they could remain flexible enough for each specific project in terms of project management, procedures and any document management that would be needed for the project. So simple products would have simple processes set up in the PDM/PLM system and complex products – which would involve co-development across different sites – required comprehensive project and document set-ups.
Now all users were in a position to work with the same set of data even if the front-end applications were different: CADDesktop in engineering design, Easy-DM in product management, and classic SAP-GUI in logistics, sales, purchasing and management accounts. They now all have one key thing in common: a product document management system for the entire development project, from the initial concept to market-ready products and beyond. Implementation was only possible and user acceptance only realistic by keeping simple things straightforward and making complex processes more efficient.
Engineering disciplines are rapidly merging in the field of medical technology. Items that used to fall clearly into the field of mechanical products are now complex mechatronic systems similar to developments in many industries, with highly complex electronics and bullet proof software. So now ECAD systems are closely integrated into the IT infrastructure making it possible to investigate things such as the interplay between electronics and mechanics. For instance, you can conduct a spatial analysis of construction areas – for cable systems. Or a thermodynamic analysis of the heat emitted by electronic components. This is only possible in a closely integrated engineering environment. And naturally another welcome benefit is that this creates an integrated parts list, detailing mechanical and electronic components.
So now that the challenges imposed on development processes and IT infrastructures have been overcome, dealing with further requirements – such as integration into other fields – should be child’s play. Complete development documents can be managed, including software status at a variety of locations. In turn, this provides the development process with a structure and simplifies document management, resulting in less mistakes and more efficient processes.
During the IT overhaul and the introduction of the new development process, the organizational layout of worldwide product development offered the opportunity for restructuring. To help product groups and sites confer more closely an overall head of development was identified, now based in the US. For each functional area a development manager was put in place with global responsibility.
As a result of this wide-sweeping project, the company is almost within touching distance of its vision of up-to-the-minute, globally integrated development activities. Data transparency is excellent, with clearly defined data responsibility and ownership, facilitating efficient, fast and almost glitchfree development processes. The concept proposed matched the needs of the company and project set-ups were geared to longterm needs, making it possible to dictate the direction in both areas early – and thus define and implement next steps in keeping with the overall solution.
One major reason why this is necessary is that the users at the center of the IT solution must perceive success and feel motivated to keep up the momentum. If people do not feel positive about a project, the difficult task of coordinating work across sites and departments will not be fulfilled. This is particularly true for further integration in non-technical areas such as marketing and sales as it is more of a challenge to integrate these areas for technological, organizational and even psychological reasons. Buoyed by positive results to date, the company is now taking next steps.