Lean data flow: From CAD to ERP to the shop floor

How good information management drives manufacturing improvement

The FABRICATOR August 2014
August 7, 2014
By: Tim Heston

Fabricators sell their ability to produce the right part in the right quantity and at the right time, and to do that requires good information. Communication troubles arise if front office systems don’t communicate with each other, and this can include CAD and ERP.

The speed at which a modern cutting laser head makes its way through a nest epitomizes the astounding speed of modern fabrication equipment. But there’s something today that outpaces even the fastest fabrication machine tools on the market. Fabricators have more of it than ever before, and it can change in an instant. That something is information.

So much in modern contract fabrication focuses on part flow, but when you think about it, fabricators don’t just sell their manufacturing capability and capacity. They also sell their ability to produce the right part in the right quantity and at the right time, and to do that requires good information.

No matter how efficient machines and their simulation and programming functionalities become, they can’t do their job without the right information. If part flow is a river, then information is the water quality. Good communication and collaboration from the customer to sales and engineering, and finally the shop floor, can ensure the water stays crystal clear. Bad information muddies the water, and the mud comes from poor communication. This comes in part from data systems used in the front office that may not be as integrated as they could be—and this includes CAD and enterprise resource planning (ERP).

On the Same Page

Integration of CAD and ERP has a rocky history. Having CAD and ERP share the same master materials list, for instance, seems straightforward—but the devil’s in the details, especially if a shop is working with complex, multilevel bills of material (BOMs). “We see BOMs that are 500 items long, and then you have to know all the hierarchy. You need to know raw material X goes to part Y, which ends up in assembly Z,” said Sue Irby, senior product manager at Exact JobBOSS, Bloomington, Minn. “Building this hierarchy into the integration can be a challenge.”

Early on the flow of information between CAD and ERP wasn’t simple. “I’m thinking back to character-based systems in the DOS era, when you had a lot of proprietary or nonstandard platforms,” said Dave Lechleitner, director of manufacturing excellence and presales at KeyedIn Solutions, Minneapolis. “It was difficult or downright impossible to get data out of one software package into another, even using rudimentary import/export routines.”

The next area involved import/export routines that over time became simpler and more reliable, first into formats like Excel®, then finally into formats that allow specific ERP and CAD packages to communicate. This led to what has become more common today: creating a BOM in the ERP no longer needs to occur at another desk. The technician opens up a window in CAD that provides the live master material list in the ERP system.

“This brings us to where we are today: the use of standard programming protocols and APIs [application protocol interfaces],” Lechleitner said. “We’ve really reached the point where data can seamlessly be integrated and go back and forth in real time.”

The integration between CAD and ERP also eases the design and quoting process, partly overcoming a common dilemma in the job shop world. Managers need to quote not only accurately but also quickly. According to the 2013 Financial Ratios & Operational Benchmarking Survey, many shops win 10 to 30 percent of the jobs they bid on.

“But if my CAD software solution integrates directly to my quoting solution in the ERP system, I don’t have to rekey the data between the two systems,” Lechleitner said. “And if a shop has done a similar product before, the new product design doesn’t have to start from scratch. You don’t have to start from ground zero.”

As Christine Hansen, product marketing manager at Austin, Texas-based Epicor, described it: “During the estimation process, traditionally you might bring in your own engineers to validate what you’ve received from the customer or in many cases create something new. As part of that process, the flow from the estimation, defining the requirements, to engineering was very much a manual process. The information not only for the drawing of the product, but also the material requirements and bill of operations, all of that was done manually to build the estimate. But through integration with CAD, we’re now not only bringing that over electronically into the ERP system, but we’re also able to synchronize. So I may have a list of materials in my ERP system, and now those can flow into the CAD engineers’ hands, so they are calling out the right materials.”

Dusty Alexander, CEO/president of Global Shop Solutions, The Woodlands, Texas, described one engineered-to-order fabricator, a shop that handles a fair amount of complicated projects. “As they told us, it used to take them a few weeks until they knew what materials to buy. Now we hit the button in CAD, and it’s now a five-minute process, compared to two weeks.”

In the past, engineers have focused much of their time on getting components that may call for long lead-times, like purchased items, out the door. Integrating the CAD and ERP, however, eases a lot of this work. “With a sound integration between the design software and ERP system, engineers can focus on the design process,” said Peter Elliff, senior operations consultant at Global Shop Solutions. “Once the information is in the ERP, procurement has everything they need.”

Information Flow on the Shop Floor

The information in modern manufacturing starts in a digital format, in 3-D CAD, and now it can stay that way.

“We’re presently working with a few companies about generating routers automatically, directly from the 3-D model,” Elliff said. “All the information that flows from the design software, in instances where organizations want the information to flow from that model, will automatically update the router.” This won’t work in all environments, he said, but for some companies, this kind of integration may be ideal.

“We’re seeing a lot of shops now using simple move tickets instead of the job travelers,” Alexander said. These 4- by 6-in. tickets, often physically attached to work on the floor, are printed from a label printer after the previous operation, almost like a receipt showing what was just performed to the work and where it needs to go. If a job is split after a certain operation—be it to reduce batch sizes, or because a certain portion of the order is due soon, or if a large batch of parts on the laser is sent to multiple press brakes at once—separate move tickets can be printed for each, as opposed to having multiple copies of a complete job traveler. To access the latest and greatest about the job, workers pick up a tablet or laptop and log on to see all the pertinent information, including a view of the 3-D CAD image.

More shop floor techs now have access to the 3-D CAD file viewer on the floor. They can’t make design changes, of course, but they can at least view it and manipulate it to see what goes where, and how the part they’re working with fits into the larger subassembly. The viewer can also show errorproofing details that may be difficult to convey verbally, such as a line or notation that shows how to prevent forming a specific flange backward on the press brake. In manufacturing, a picture can often say it better than words.

“The better data we can transfer to the operator on the floor, the less chance we have to have the internal quality issues that ultimately raise the cost of doing business,” Elliff said.

Communication has to flow from the shop floor to the front office, too, of course. “A lot of times an engineer might design something in CAD, but that engineer may not have been on the shop floor manufacturing parts in many years,” Lechleitner said. “So what he’s doing is really based on theory.” A trip to the shop floor can mean the world.

Here, software tools can aid the communication. Say a flange requires the brake technician to set up an awkward tooling arrangement or bend sequence, or the technician notices that a specific form would be a lot easier if another tool were available at the machine. These occurrences don’t bring production to a crashing halt, but they do make the technician’s job more difficult than it could be. Viewing an image of the CAD file on his tablet or laptop, the technician can mark a red line on a certain aspect of the drawing and make a note (sometimes called a “red line”) on the document with the 3-D CAD image, or in a separate comments area within the master job file—perhaps a comment or suggestion for better work instructions—which in turn is communicated to the front office.

This isn’t a design change; the markup occurs on a CAD viewer or simply a PDF, attached to the master job file. But the next time the job comes around, the people in the front office may take those notes into account. A small design change may or may not be possible, depending on the customer, but the software tools at least buttress better communication, and it helps get the conversation started for future improvements.

Outside the CAD viewer, the comments area on the job file also allow workers to record any anomaly that varies from the production plan, or communicate potential alternatives. As Hansen explained, “At the end of the job, there’s a host of things you can see [in the software]: What did you do, what did you think you were going to do, and do you want to do it that way again?”

Make the Change—Now

“The real kicker is when change happens,” Hansen said. “How do we flow the change that came from engineering out to the production floor? If everything is integrated, it’s all automated. You don’t have to worry that you’re building the wrong product or that you’re using the wrong material specification.”

What if a customer calls in and requests a different fastener? While talking to the customer on the phone, the engineer can access the ERP and see exactly where the job stands on the floor; with that knowledge, he knows whether or not he can make the change. It turns out the job is scheduled for the laser in 30 minutes, so there’s still time to specify different hardware. So he makes the update to the CAD file, which in turn is updated in the master job file in the ERP system. The job file updates with the new CAD drawing and new work instructions. Before the job reaches the hardware department, new information is sent to the floor. There, workers pull up the online file, see the latest information, and are ready to go.

Document Control and Data Verification

No software tool can magically make inconsistent information consistent. Developing business practices to ensure software is compatible and up-to-date (including CAD viewer plug-ins) is important, as is standardizing data formatting.

“Each design system out there is not operating the same way at each business entity,” Elliff said. “So companies need to understand requirements and know how to use the design tool to get the information from the 3-D model, so it can be in a format that flows to the ERP system.”

Part information may be able to be tweaked on-the-fly and work instructions updated, but if the design and work instructions are bad and unclear, then the software tools just make the communication of bad or unclear information more efficient.

More information and changes create more complexity and the potential for error, especially considering how quickly changes now occur. Here’s where good document control practices comes into play. “What if a change is made in the ERP, and a change is made in CAD at the same time, and they conflict—which one wins? How do you reconcile that? There’s no automation that can truly reconcile that, so as a general rule it’s going to be a manual process,” Irby said. For this reason, she recommends that, although CAD and ERP systems may have solid import/export functionality and even a direct link between the two systems, there be a verification step to ensure the data being used by both systems is correct.

Here, details like part numbers and material names matter.

Something as simple as a material name may be slightly different in the ERP—“Cold Rolled” versus “CRS,” for instance. Customers may also request to use certain terms, like their own part numbers, and ideally, all systems at the contract fabricator, including CAD and ERP, should use the same part numbering style as well.

Sure, verifying the data accuracy is an extra step, “but think of all the rekeying you’re eliminating, and the accuracy of keying was always an issue,” Irby said, adding that the task of keying was often left to CAD technicians or engineers. They worked with and knew the drawings, so it just made sense that they should key the information into the ERP. The shop basically employed a highly skilled and well-paid person to do data entry. “So regardless, you have increased your efficiency and accuracy tremendously by doing some type of integration between the CAD and ERP.”

Better Information, Better Fabricating

Computers run relatively cheap these days, as do tablets. “There’s certainly the potential to give every shop employee, or every department lead, at least, a tablet,” Lechleitner said, adding that a small investment can make communication a lot easier and seamless throughout the company—and quite often, good communication is what really sets a company apart.

Again, sources emphasized that software and hardware, however comprehensive, are just tools. People still need to manage people and processes well and communicate clearly, perhaps even more so now, considering everything happens so quickly. But software tools can make communication a lot easier, and they’re more accessible than ever.

Tim Heston

Tim Heston

Senior Editor
FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-381-1314

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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