We're in the age of web-based collaboration and company-wide PLM networks. That means design engineers no longer work on product development in isolation, but are often linked to marketing, management, manufacturing, and maintenance.
PLM salesmen tell us that's a good thing, since it streamlines the process by ensuring design changes are made early in the cycle (last-minute fixes are expensive). But how about the engineers? Do they mind the crowd of critics peering over their shoulders as they work?
One way to avoid packing too many cooks into the kitchen is through a stage-gate process, where each department must pass documented milestones before handing off the job to the next.
In the automotive industry, that worked for tire-maker Goodyear (Akron, OH) and it worked for Intermet (Troy, MI), a casting designer and manufacturer.
"We're applying all the tried and true principles, like pipeline management, portfolio management, and resource management," says Rich Olsen, Goodyear's manager of global stage-gate processes. "With four or six projects, it would be very easy, but when you're pushing a ballpark of 1,000 projects worldwide, and they're all competing for the same resources, it's a challenge."
Goodyear was working hard to handle projects as diverse as developing a next-generation tire and bringing out a line of new others. Now the company uses workflow collaboration software from Framework Technologies Inc. (Burlington, MA), called ActiveProduct, which includes three modules: ActiveProject, ActiveProcess, and ActivePortfolio. Goodyear is now using the first two and evaluating the third.
It all starts when Goodyear's marketing department submits an RFP (request for project). Detailing customer requirements and deadlines, they use ActiveProduct to ask the engineers if they can handle the job—specifically, does Goodyear have the technology to do this, and has the company built similar tires in the past? If design engineers OK the plan, then ActiveProduct routes the request to other departments: manufacturing, plant planning, finance, etc.
No finished products have been through this process yet, since Goodyear began deploying the platform in 2002, and its typical OEM product development cycle takes two to four years.
Still, it's just a tire—how complicated could collaboration be?
The planning occurs between Goodyear employees at primary technical centers in various locations. Each RFP has more than 600 fields of data, all catalogued in a basic Oracle database running on a single server at the company's U.S. headquarters. Each user can fill out the fields pertaining to his section, allowing him to search the database for his own concerns and see the specific fields of interest to him.
Riding on those tires are scores of cast-metal parts that comprise the rest of the car. Most of those are made by Intermet. The company specializes in "black box" projects, where an automotive OEM will request a part without design details, asking Intermet to optimize for cost, strength, and weight. That means the company makes nearly everything (crankshafts, camshafts, engine covers, transmissions, oil pump bodies, chassis and suspension, brakes, and more) and uses almost every type of software to do it. The challenge got tougher in recent months, following a corporate buying spree when the company acquired four other businesses between 1998 and 2000.
So they adopted ActiveProject in March, 2001 to keep track of the whole process, says Gary Ruff, Intermet's EVP of technical services. One of their biggest challenges was software: they run Metaphase PDM, four types of CAD (SDRC, Pro/Engineer, Unigraphics, and Catia), and nearly every CAE analysis package.
"Intermet before 1995 had a decent communication system; then our engineering staff about doubled," he says. Spread over various locations, they didn't want to build a hard-wired WAN between their computers; they wanted a Web-based system. And yet, they didn't want to hire network administrators, programmers, or consultants. And—oh, yes—they wanted the ability to invite customers to join in collaboration sessions, too.
ActiveProject was the answer because it allowed the company to share lightweight versions of complex CAD models, rotating them in a Web browser, adding comments, and looking at cross-sections.
Today, ActiveProject has more than 250 users, spread around Intermet's 25 locations, including 20 manufacturing plants. It all runs off a single server at the company's headquarters in Troy, with minimal oversight: "My administrative assistant is the network administrator," says Ruff. "And it takes less than an hour a week."
"We kid around with Framework, and tell them 'Forget about ActiveProject; we're interested in Active-PROFIT!'" Ruff says.
That part seems to be working, too. Intermet recently finished working with Delphi Corp. (Troy, MI) on a steering knuckle for General Motors's UW platform, used in minivans—the Venture, Montana, Grand Prix, Impala, and Malibu. Intermet expects to produce two million parts per year—not bad for the first major product they tracked end-to-end in ActiveProject.
And they found another way to save money: the easy collaboration has even allowed Intermet to buy fewer seats of CAD, since many users had owned it merely to view each other's files.
Compared to PLM, the ActiveProduct suite has a shorter lifecycle, says Framework CEO Donald Tomkinson. It doesn't help generate ideas (which is where PLM begins) and it doesn't help retire ideas (which is where PLM ends), but it makes everything in between more efficient.
The suite has three modules, stacked on top of each other. ActiveProject synchronizes information, milestones, and communications between all team members. ActiveProcess is built on top of ActiveProject, and ensures products are introduced at the right time and cost. Finally, ActivePortfolio is built on top of ActiveProcess, and ensures the right products are brought to market.
"Moen turns over its entire product line every three years," says Tompkins. "When you're dealing with that kind of 'product velocity,' you want to be sure it's efficient. It's better to put out 70 release per year with a 60% success rate than put out 100 new products with a 50% success rate."
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