Talk to engineers or search the Web about Engineering Change Orders (ECO) and you will quickly realize you have stumbled into dreaded territory. People who engineer either the design or the manufacturing processes generally love their jobs, but universally cringe at the thought of having to request, document, and implement changes to their work after the fact.
One reason engineering team members cringe in reaction to ECOs is because they instinctively recognize inefficiency when they see it. In this era of computer-based automation and efficiency, ECOs seem to have been left behind. They are usually created on spreadsheets then processed manually and informally using nothing more sophisticated than Windows Explorer and email. It is a process offering no chance for department-wide visibility, no way to automate the surrounding information flow of alerts, status, and approvals, and no way to create a useful audit trail for future reference.
The solution is not found in continuing to treat ECOs as the unloved step-child of engineering, but in embracing change as normal and healthy, and managing change for success. The key to moving beyond the cringe is to unite what works about an existing ECO process—after all, the change is made, eventually—with proven tools to wring inefficiency out of engineering. The first step is to realize ECOs belong in a product data management (PDM) system the same as original engineering documents. After all, Windows Explorer wasn’t made for engineers.
Using a PDM to automate ECOs becomes a process of orchestration. Changes can be simple (a supplier part number has changed but the item is identical), or complex (a crucial part has a high and early failure rate); but the automation of the processes are very similar. The key is to leverage PDM software to create an electronic workflow supporting access, openness, and ease of transaction. Status updates can be generated automatically and not left to whim. Alerts can be set up to warn about process bottlenecks such as lack of response or key pieces of data not provided. The ability to view the status of an ECO at any time is empowering even if no specific action is taken.
Not every PDM is created equal when it comes to ECOs. Make sure you can create unique workflows to automate your specific engineering change processes. Synergis Adept, for example, offers these features:
Synergis Adept Features
- Workflow notification alert automates accountability, keeping team members on task;
- Daisy chain workflow options means the entire process does not have to be defined in advance. Start an ECO, and add to it as needed;
- Documents are accessible even when assigned to an ECO; people can make decisions along the way as to routing a document;
- ECO workflow auditing and dash boarding simplifies management of the ECO process.
A good ECO system not only keeps all the data organized but also unites all stakeholders in the process. Thoughtfully designed and carefully executed, a PDM-based ECO system will reduce errors, minimize delays, and improve the ability to benefit from input. Watch a replay of our “Eliminating the ECO Ball & Chain” webcast to find out how Synergis Adept automates the process.
Randall S. Newton is the principal analyst and managing director at Consilia Vektor, a consulting firm serving the engineering software industry. He has been directly involved in engineering software in a number of roles since 1985.