The Dirty Little Secrets of Engineering Document Management

Do you always turn slightly to the left when someone takes your picture, because you think you are showing your “good side”? (I don’t turn my head, but I do lift my chin just a little.) It is human nature to try to put ourselves in the best possible light. Software vendors also do that, so to speak. Every product on the market has strengths and weaknesses. It requires careful study to select the right product when there are competing solutions.

For managing engineering information, three types of programs are competing for market share: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), Product Data Management (PDM), and Engineering Document Management (EDM). PLM companies love to talk about how they integrate all product information into one database to deliver “one version of the truth.” PDM companies extol the virtues of managing access and use of all CAD data. EDM companies talk about streamlining enterprise business processes and making all engineering documentation secure, shared, and accessible. There is considerable overlap between the functions of the three, as well as distinctive elements in how each type of program operates.

I have seen companies come and go during my 30 years in the engineering software industry. Some of them disappeared because they were terrible at marketing. Some died because technology changed and they didn’t. And some died because too many users found out the hard way there are flaws and limitations that the product vendors don’t reveal. Like the right pose for a photo, companies do their best to avoid revealing those dirty little secrets.

What exactly do I mean by dirty little secrets? They are embarrassing facts, troublesome bits of information someone — or in this case, some software company — would rather keep hidden. In the world of engineering, I see three dirty little secrets haunting the industry. Read More

How to Foster Innovation within Your Organization

Published by Kristen Tomasic, President of Synergis Technologies, Inc.


“Innovation happens at the meeting point of different disciplines. When silos of disciplines are broken down, innovation happens.”  Valerie Gervais, Sr. VP HR, Saint-Gobain

I had the pleasure of attending the Delaware Valley Industrial Resource Center (DVIRC) Manufacturing Summit on October 12 at The Fuge in Warminster where Valerie Gervais was a featured keynote. Of all the presentations, I was most impressed and inspired by what she shared.  From someone whose primary role was in HR, it was illuminating to hear the importance of innovation in all departments and to consider what we can learn from different disciplines inside and outside of an organization.

To give you an example of how she’s leveraged different disciplines in her role, Ms. Gervais sent an anthropologist into a factory to interview employees to help her team to understand the people and their needs. As we all know, anthropologists study people, but how many companies have considered applying their study of humans, norms, and values of societies to better appreciate and understand their employees?

Anthropologists, by practice, start with a blank page when studying new cultures or peoples. They are curious by nature, and are typically experienced in interviewing people about their backgrounds, histories, and experiences. By employing anthropologists to study their factory workers, Valerie and her team were able to adjust employee benefits, policies, and practices to retain skilled factory workers.  The “skilled workforce” issue is a major challenge for many manufacturing companies today, and St. Gobain has cracked the code to improving factory employee retention.

Many people associate the application or study of human sciences like anthropology, sociology, political science, and philosophy with research and education. It’s often difficult to appreciate how a business can benefit from the experiences and expertise of a poly-sci major. But, have you ever been in a meeting where the most innovative idea comes from the person who isn’t living the problem every day?

Consider the insights or solutions we might gain by putting engineers and philosophers and marketers and financial analysts in a room to solve a business problem or develop the next revolutionary product.  I want to be part of that team. Understanding diverse perspectives, getting outside of your own business or industry, and breaking down the divisional or departmental silos can lead to amazing things for your team and your organization, and leads to a much more energizing and interesting culture and work experience.

I told our leadership team recently that I was going to dedicate more time in the coming weeks, months and years to “getting outside of our business.”  That’s how I ended up at the Manufacturing Summit in the first place.  And, if you’re reading this, I’d encourage you to consider the same.  We all have so much we can learn and share if we break down the siloed thinking, working and doing. Valerie said it best, “When silos of disciplines are broken down, innovation happens.”  Count me in!

Probing the Future of Augmented Reality

For the past three years, I have been living a double life. No, I’m not a spy or hiding a second family. I gave in to my midlife crisis and went to graduate school in Germany. I didn’t give up my day job writing about engineering software and doing consulting. By the time you read this, I will have defended my thesis — like a mother bear defends a cub — and graduated.

I’m not sharing this so my social media will fill with congratulatory notes. I’m telling you this as a setup to the topic of this blog post, the future of augmented reality. My new degree is in Media and Communications Studies, a discipline that uses scientific research methods to explore the wide range of human communications, from journalism to selfies.

(Side note: If it seems like I’m going off topic for a Synergis Software blog post, allow me to explain. Synergis has asked me to occasionally use this form to talk about trends and the larger issues in engineering. Let us know what you think.)

For my culminating research project, I took a look at the future of augmented reality (AR). Specifically, I explored what experienced technology marketing professionals think about the near-term future of augmented reality. This means my study was not technical in nature, but my results provide insight into what members of a professional, technical community think about this intriguing new technology. My preliminary findings revealed a complete lack of empirical research on using AR for business and professional marketing, so my project was able to provide information other researchers could use. This is called an ex ante exploratory study. Read More

Is Blockchain Technology In Your Company’s Future?

It is hard to pay attention to the flow of news today and not hear about Bitcoin. Every segment of the news media — even celebrity gossip — seems to have an interest in this radical remake of value exchange. Bitcoin gets the headlines, but the underlying technology — blockchain — is the real news. It is a quintessential foundational technology, and it will have a big impact on engineering, manufacturing, and construction processes.

Blockchain’s Fundamental Capabilities

Before I get into how blockchain will be a game changer, let’s review the technology’s fundamental capabilities. Blockchain is a peer-to-peer network sitting on top of the Internet, just as the World Wide Web or the email protocol does. It took 30 years for the set of technologies we call the Internet to transform our business and personal lives. I believe it won’t take blockchain as long, because it isn’t starting from scratch; the Internet it needs has already been deployed. Read More

What’s Next in Engineering Technology? Part 3

In the two previous articles in this series, I’ve taken a look at short-term trends regarding design tools, and explained how I look for what’s next in IT. In the third and final part, I want to share my current observations about the next big wave of innovation.

I use the ideas of “stacks” as my metaphor to understand how specific technologies interact to create new rounds of innovation. I see a new stack coming together that will drive innovative new applications in a variety of fields. The current innovation stack — CAMS — has four “big idea” technologies (cloud, analytics, mobile, social); this new one has five: real-time processing, operational trust, autonomy, distributed processing, and intelligence. The initials seems to be a good title (ROADI), since the poster child for this next wave of innovation is the self-driving car. ROADI will turn product and services into autonomous discrete agents.

Self-driving cars must possess intelligent and autonomous behavior. They must always respond in real-time to the environment. Their actions are based on a refined notion of trusted operational behavior. The necessary computation and connectivity can’t be centralized in a server or even a cloud; it must take place in each vehicle and in every other object on or near the road. Read More

What’s Next in Engineering Technology? Part 2

In a previous blog post I wrote about near-term technology trends affecting Adept users. Today I want to discuss how I identify and track such trends. I thought this would be a two-part series of articles, but I’ll need a Part 3 to share my thoughts on long-term technology trends affecting the larger world of engineering.

As a point of reference, consider how the Internet became so important to daily life. The original plan didn’t call for it to be used for engineering or data management, or even commerce. The first developments were driven by the military and academia. Today, Internet technologies like email and the World Wide Web are the technical backbone for almost all social, commercial, academic, governance, and industrial activity.

Internet use exploded when four key technologies were exploited as a unit. Those four were the Linux operating system, the Apache web server, the MySQL open source database system, and the trio of lean programming (scripting) languages Python, PHP, and Perl. Each of these technologies were useful alone, but when used together they ignited the tech equivalent of the Cambrian Explosion. Developers started referring to the four technologies as a unit, the “LAMP stack.” Read More

What’s Next in Engineering Technology?

For nearly four years, I have been a guest writer here on the Synergis blog, commenting on the state of engineering document management and highlighting innovative uses of Adept. While I will still be doing that until I wear out my welcome, over the next few months I will also occasionally comment on engineering technology trends. Not just EDMS/PDM issues, but all the digital tools engineers need, and the products they will make with new technologies.

In this column and the next, I will touch on several trends. In future columns, I will explore these ideas in more detail. This article will start with trends more familiar to Adept users; the next one will gaze further ahead.

2D CAD remains essential

3D CAD is a powerful technology, but just as television did not kill radio, 3D CAD did not and will not kill 2D CAD. Rich, descriptive visual languages have evolved over the years, all based in 2D drafting. No less a 3D proponent than Dassault Systemès (Catia, SolidWorks) estimates that for every seat of 3D CAD software in use, there are between four to ten seats of 2D CAD software supporting the same mission. The differences are by industry: Construction uses more 2D seats than automotive, which uses more 2D seats than aerospace and defense. This ratio of 3D to 2D won’t be changing anytime in the near future. Read More

5 Reasons to Attend the Adept Experience Community Event (October 1-4)

We understand. It’s hard to take time away from work to attend a conference. It’s difficult to pry yourself from the ever-growing to-do lists, take the time to justify conference and travel expenses, and then actually commit to attending an event. However, we’ve heard from all attendees at last year’s Adept Experience that their face-to-face meetings with other Adept experts was THE best way to uncover ideas that grow and catapult your business to the next level.

That’s why we’ve put together five bulletproof reasons why you need to attend Adept Experience this year:

Synergis Adept Product roadmap

The Synergis Software leadership team will give you a sneak peek into the future development of Adept for the next 3-5 years. You’ll have a chance to hear directly from the masterminds behind the product about what’s coming and what’s not.

The Customer Advisory Council

Do you have suggestions for ways to improve Adept for your business? During this two hour interactive session, you will be heard. The Advisory Council allows you to give direct input into the changes you want to see most in our product suite. Synergis leadership and developers will be available to hear your feedback and answer your questions. Read More

Justifying New EDM Software to the Stubborn

Engineers are tinkerers by nature. They love to tweak things to see if they can “fix them” in some way. Perhaps engineers have a “tweaking” gene others lack.

Engineers are also devoted to method. They like to find a process that works and stick to it. That bit of stubbornness is great when it means products work right and adhere to established norms for safety and cost. But sometimes stubbornness rears its head when engineering companies take a look at improving their workflow with modern product data management (PDM) or engineering data management (EDM) software.

What should a company do when resistance to engineering process change comes not from above (top management) or beyond (accounting or operations), but from within? I suggest a focus on the practical benefits of installing modern engineering management software like Synergis Adept. Consider these aspects pulled from a variety of user experiences.

Change management

When change management moves from a paper trail process to a digital workflow, it becomes easier and faster to track, manage, and deliver more accurate information. Sounds nice, but how do you get buy-in from staff? Explain how the new process puts change management information “at your fingertips.” When Visa Lighting updated its engineering workflow with Adept, one of the big benefits was improved change management. “Now we have a streamlined change control process that is paperless and automatically routes files so we don’t have a huge paper trail traveling around the building. We can find the change document and pull up all related drawings, images, and everything else we need in a couple of clicks. All the information is at our fingertips,” says Visa Lighting’s Scott Hastings.

Audits

Want to instantly fill a room full of engineers with a sense of dread? Just say the word “audit” out loud. Whether the purpose is regulatory approval, defending against a potential lawsuit, or due diligence for an acquisition, engineering process audits are a necessary evil. If all the documentation is already cataloged and searchable inside your PDM system, gathering information for an audit becomes a simple task. The time you save and the quality of the information you can provide is a sure step in reducing exposure to expensive risk. And you can chase the auditors out sooner.

Transmittals

This is a process specific to construction-related industries. Every project has stages where all the data must be gathered and sent to the client as one neat package, the transmittal. In organizations without automated data management, this can take days. And nobody wants to be the person put in charge of preparing the transmittal. With Adept, the process is as close to “push a button” as it can get. The chance of errors is greatly reduced; any search for documents is an automated process; and there is a relationship established between the transmittal cover sheet and the documents being sent. Best of all, the whole process has an audit trail. If the client can take the transmittal as a set of PDFs, even more time and money are saved.

Playing nice with others (AKA collaboration)

It is increasingly common for engineering departments to collaborate on projects. It might be with another engineering unit in the same company, or it might be as a subcontractor on a larger project. It is easier to collaborate when your internal information management is running at peak efficiency. If collaboration is a sore point in your organization, tell your team about Dow Chemical, a long-time Adept user.

Dow Chemical standardized when, after years of acquisitions, they realized engineering data management was being handled by no less than 25 different software platforms or ad-hoc workflows. The result was better than expected. Dow says the use of Adept increased the speed of projects, and it changed the way it does business because of increased flexibility in unusual document management situations. One of the unexpected benefits of standardizing on Adept was insight on creating new best practices for planning, deploying, and measuring effectiveness of their engineering management practices. Engineers might be stubborn, but most of them like the idea of creating and adopting new best practices — it goes back to that “tweaking” gene.

The ultimate tweak your engineers should appreciate is how Adept works with your existing system. Adept uses a unique “smart vaulting” approach to data management. It provides security and control without encrypting or scrambling the existing documents or file folder structure. And it does not move documents into a new database. The smart vaulting can be for one site, or across multiple locations. If something terrible happens and Adept is not available (as in a remote location losing its connection to the corporate network), the original documents are still where they were originally placed.

All in all, even the most stubborn engineers usually come on board with new EDM software when shown the practical, day-to-day benefits. Just give them a chance to scratch their tweaking itch.

If you’re considering how to better manage your product, facilities or plant data, contact us to learn more about how Adept can impact your organization.


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. 

Huffman Engineering Simplifies Control Systems Engineering with Synergis Adept

Process plants depend on highly specialized control systems. They are an integrated product combining software, mechanical equipment, and sensors. Huffman Engineering, Inc. has become a leading partner to manufacturers, utility plants, and the pharmaceutical industry in the US Prairies region by delivering high quality custom process control manufacturing and integration.

“No two projects are alike,” says Jay Steinman, a mechanical engineer at Huffman. The company is a full-service vendor, building control panels and the interface equipment between plant equipment and computers, and providing the software to run the system. Much of their work is for heavily regulated industries including water/wastewater and pharmaceutical. A typical project in water/wastewater would be to build controls for every value and gate, and to install sensors that monitor flow and water quality. A project in pharma might be to install the control mechanism for a new machine that bottles pills. In both cases, Huffman does not build the machines, but adds the controlling technology to the devices.

The processes are complicated, and most of their clients work under intense regulation pressure, requiring strict adherence to manufacturing and testing protocols. And it all must be thoroughly documented, says Keith Mandachit, a senior engineer and Huffman’s IT manager. “We can’t just build it and send it out. We have to provide a lot of [manufacturing] documentation and a lot of testing documentation.”

For electricity utilities, Huffman also provides infrastructure security controls. Recently Huffman was brought into consult on cyber security for an electricity provider. Huffman discovered the utility was using the same computer network to run both their facility and their business operations. The business side was open to the at-large Internet, putting the security of the power facility at-risk. Huffman created a completely separate network to cut off the utility’s internal power processes from the outside world.

A need to nail down the single source of truth

Each project creates a tremendous amount of engineering data and reference information, in the form of CAD drawings or models, project management and work process forms, certifications, documentation of systems, documentation of testing, PLC programming, and more. On the network, projects were organized into separate folders, but there was no standard protocol for how to repurpose documents or to manage revisions. As Huffman did more and more programming for their clients, as well as creating control mechanisms and sensor systems, there was no consistency in how the software code was managed as part of the project.

Over time, Huffman created an ad hoc manual revisioning system for CAD drawings using network file folders. “And then with the engineering side, we were storing programs and specifications within our project folders. Sometimes people would make revisions, but you never knew. Many of our projects touched the same systems,” says Steinman. As projects moved along and control software was reused or modified, it was not being tracked as a separate product. “We didn’t have that single source of truth with those programs.”

It is not uncommon for Huffman’s clients to ask for CAD drawings or other documentation years after the work has finished. “Even though we give them a copy of everything, they still rely on us for their stuff,” says Steinman. Every time a drawing is copied and shared, it creates another version that can, over time, be modified. Having more than one copy of any particular drawing or model means there is no single source of truth.

Project numbering as a tool for record keeping was another area where Huffman realized they needed a new way to work. For years, projects were just named for the numerical order they came to the company, by client. Often a client would request bids on three separate projects; Huffman engineers would simply name them Project 1, Project 2, and Project 3. “But they might not actually happen in sequential order,” says Mandachit. “Project 3 might be the first one we did; Project 1 might be the last one we implemented.” It might be easy enough for those working on the project to keep track through the sequence mismatch, but when others in the company became involved, projects were easily confused. Employees were wasting time looking for data in the wrong places.

The company realized it had much to gain from getting its engineering document management under control. At first, Mandachit and others looked at GIT and SubVersion, open source tools designed to automate file management for software developers. But they were not suitable for most engineering document types, and employees who evaluated these products found them hard to use. Next, they looked at a software product that did only one thing, create a versioning system for PLC programs. But it lacked configuration management. Then Huffman explored the use of Microsoft SharePoint technology, but found it needed too much customization — which was nobody’s area of expertise at Huffman.

Control systems integrators like Huffman are required to be audited for engineering processes every three years. “Every time we have been audited and we got to the section on configuration management, we would pass but with a ‘C,’ not with an ‘A,’” says Mandachit. “We wanted to get an ‘A;’ we felt it was very important.”

Finding the answers in Synergis Adept

At a regional meeting of Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), Steinman and Mandachit heard a presentation about Synergis Adept from another CSIA member. They were doing all the things Huffman was looking to accomplish with the various point tools. After examining its capabilities, a decision was made to invest in Adept. “We wanted that ‘A,’” says Steinman. “We did not do any financial calculations. We knew it would be difficult to estimate ROI because it is incremental amounts of time being saved. We knew we had to spend some amount of money to get what we needed.”

Huffman chose to go with the Quick Start form of initial implementation. With help from one Synergis implementation engineer, they were up and running in three days. A server crash only a few weeks into implementation meant they needed to start over; this time Steinman rebuilt the implementation of Adept on his own.

Huffman has chosen to pull older data (legacy data) into the system on an as-needed basis. A couple of years earlier, the company did a serious archiving project, and now Steinman and others pull older project data into the Adept system when needed. Projects that were in process when Adept was reinstalled are not being migrated; all new projects are starting in Adept. Unlike complex PLM systems that require all engineering data to be uploaded before anyone uses the new software, Adept’s unique “wrap-around” approach makes it easy for users to add new files and folders to the system as needed.

Like most Adept users, Huffman is managing CAD drawings and related documents such as specifications. They also use it to manage the computer code created to run programmable logic controllers (PLC). Each software file created is stored with the related project, but easily made available in Adept to be repurposed for new projects.

Huffman uses AutoCAD for most design and engineering, and their typical method is to do one sheet per file (some users will have all sheets generated in the same file). So the number of AutoCAD .dwg files grows rapidly. Mandachit estimates that after only a few months, Huffman has added tens of thousands of drawings to Adept. As employees become more familiar with Adept, Huffman will start implementing automated workflows for transmittals, hang orders, and other workflow processes. They also plan to create a quoting workflow in Adept, not something that ships with the product, but can be created by the client.

Huffman also takes advantage of an Adept feature called Unlinked Records, and are being rather inventive in their implementation. Unlinked Records is a feature in Adept used to include various records not in electronic format, such as drawings on paper, a box in storage, or other documents on paper regarding a project. Unlinked Records could also be filenames and record numbers being saved for future use. An Unlinked Record is the electronic stand-in for the record, with a note on where to find it and what the connection is to the project.

Huffman organizes its records method based on pieces of equipment, since they are tracked and maintained after they are manufactured and installed. Unlinked Records are created for every paper-based document but also for every machine. When auditors next examine Huffman’s procedures, they will find a continuous electronic link between Huffman and the client that clearly shows the role of every document, every form, every procedure, every bit of software code, and an Unlinked Record that connects all of this to the piece of equipment. “Prior to Adept, we didn’t really have all this information so easily accessible. We would be hunting around on our server trying to find where all these different files were, so we could put them together,” says Mandachit.

When Mandachit and Steinman told their Synergis contact how they had implemented Unlinked Records, they discovered their use of the feature was not being used elsewhere. They had attended CSIA webinars on configuration management, and thought they could do better; with Adept and the Unlinked Records feature they found their missing link. “We believe to truly satisfy the [audit] requirements, [it] requires the solution we have in Adept,” says Mandachit.

Another surprise for Huffman in its exploration of Synergis Adept was how easy it is to publish drawings as PDF files using the Publish Wave add-in. Not all Huffman engineers have a copy of AutoCAD, just a viewer. Before Adept, anyone who needed to view a drawing would find the original and make a copy. Those copies proliferated and were often changed. Now anyone who needs to view a drawing — but whom is not authorized to change it — requests a PDF version, created by Publish Wave. “It is a huge time-saver for our CAD manager, who has to respond to every request,” adds Mandachit. Adept with Publish Wave also manages when the PDF was created, so that if changes occur to the original AutoCAD drawing, it is easy for a user to know there is a newer version.

In the past, Huffman’s backup protocols and internal security were rooted in 1980s methods. With Adept in place, Huffman now has a comprehensive back-up procedure and a complete disaster recovery plan in place, utilizing a virtualized server.

A better way to manage control systems engineering

Huffman Engineering now has a complete system in place to manage its complex web of process control engineering documents, procedures, and software code. The company believes its use of Unlinked Records gives it a best practice for configuration management unrivaled in the control systems integration industry. “We looked around, and found Adept is able to do everything we needed,” says Steinman. “We have best practices for maintaining revision levels, and we have our single source of truth.”

If you’re considering how to better manage your product, facilities or plant data, contact us to learn more about how Adept can help your organization.


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.