How Configuration Management / Document Control Practices Affect Time-to-Market

Note: This article originally appeared in The Business Journal published in San Jose/Silicon Valley.

Manufacturers are continually pressured to improve time-to-market.

While there is much discussion about “faster new-product development,” developing products faster is really only part of the issue.

The real challenge is decreasing the cycle time between product concept and volume shipments.

An often overlooked area that can contribute to reduced cycle times is a manufacturer’s document control processes and procedures.

The end product of product development is not merely new technology, but product documentation. Product documentation drives all functional areas within a manufacturing company. The documentation comes in various forms, including drawings and bills of material, fabrication drawings, schematics, purchased component specifications and their corresponding approved vendors, test plans and procedures, functional specifications, CAD drawing and model files, programmed device files/masters, software sources and media, technical publications, and engineering change orders.

Without documentation, a manufacturer can’t order, receive, inspect, build, test, configure, cost, install or support products. Getting released documentation to the manufacturing organization is time-critical. In today’s competitive marketplace, the duration of a development program can be less than the procurement lead time of components required to support volume shipment.

Implementation of product development tools–for example, CAE, CASE, and CAD–have not led to corresponding productivity improvements in most manufacturers’ document control processes. The document control organization often is chided for creating a bottleneck in the product release process. Yet, procedural and process issues established years earlier often contribute to needless delays that contribute little, if any, value to the product.

Delays of 5-10 working days barely were tolerable in an era when typical development programs required a year or more of effort. Today, such delays are unacceptable.

The product release process funnels all new-product documentation through the document control organization for final processing. This organization is often ill-equipped to efficiently handle the huge increase in workload. The challenge, then, is to boost the document control organization’s capacity without increasing human resources.

Manufacturers should examine several areas to reduce bottlenecks created within the document control organization at the point of a product’s release to manufacturing. These areas include: part identification practices, implementation of a new-product release checklist; and automation of the document control process.

Many manufacturers have implemented a part numbering and revision control scheme that enables their personnel to identify easily the release status of a part by looking at the revision level marked on the part.

Typical revision control schemes include practices such as using numeric revision designations, such as “01” and “02,” for prototype and pre-production parts. Later, when these same parts are released to production, the revision scheme shifts to alphabetic designations, such as “A” and “B.” Some manufacturers have adopted “X” level revision control, such as “X1” and “X2,” to denote parts that have not yet been released to manufacturing.

The use of such a revision control scheme creates a bottleneck in the product release process. Identifying a part’s status via the revision level necessarily requires that all the documentation created during the product release process be updated and redistributed to reflect a new revision level when only the part’s release status changes.

Why update a part’s documentation if the part has not changed? What value is added?

Further, this type of revision control scheme creates additional work, not only for document control but also for manufacturing by requiring that parts built before the production release date be reworked merely to change the revision level marked on the part. What value is this?

Alternatively, manufacturers should consider using the same part identification and revision control scheme for all parts, regardless of a part’s release status. Manufacturers can allocate a field within their computer-based manufacturing control system to identify the release status of parts.

Also, on-line document control systems can provide manufacturing personnel with current release status information for a specific part. Changing a code within a computer system eliminates a bottleneck associated with updating and re-issuing all new documentation.

The document control organization typically assigns the part numbers required to support all elements within a product design. Since manufacturing’s primary access to the engineering organization is through the document control function, the document control organization can make a valuable contribution to all functional areas within the company by implementing and maintaining a product release checklist for each new product.

The checklist should identify all part numbers that have been issued against a specific program and indicate whether each item is officially released (available from document control).

Document control personnel should attend program review meetings to advise management on the release status of items required to support the new product. The checklist can eliminate many last-minute surprises that can result in delays for manufacturing. Monitoring the release status of all items associated with a new product is a value-added function.

A significant productivity benefit can be derived from automating the document control process. Being able to support part number assignment electronically, generate change requests and change orders, and maintain part status information will pay handsome benefits to the entire company, not only at the stage of a product’s release but in support of day-to-day operations.

Research that normally would take hours or days can be accomplished in a fraction of that time when the information is supported on-line. Not only is an automated document control process far more expedient, data affecting decisions can be readily accessible to all manufacturing personnel whenever needed. An automated document control process adds value to the document control function.

The document control function has changed from managing paper to managing information. Manufacturers should examine their document control processes and procedures to ensure they are consistent with the business needs of both today and tomorrow.

Above all, the document control processes should be constantly scrutinized to eliminate procedural bottlenecks that don’t add value.
If you are looking at this, it is likely you are experiencing difficulties with one or more of the following areas:
• Your part numbering system
• Your engineering change request process
• Your engineering change order process and the integration of product changes with Manufacturing and Field Service
• Your inventory control accuracy
• Your product release process
• Integrating your ERP system with your business processes
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