While most major businesses have implemented ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) systems over the last decade, many of these systems have been implemented on an operational level only. And even though ERP systems are now a standard feature of the global economy, it is only recently that awareness has started to develop of the business value of full integration between the operational ERP system and the creation and management of design files.
CAD (computer aided design) files are in fact critical to business success. In particular, CAD files form the technical foundation from which industrial businesses and plants are run. Without effective management of CAD files, many plants could, quite simply, grind to a halt. Consequently, in 2003 it is imperative that companies extend their ERP systems to fully integrate the drawing office into the operational framework of the business.
A case in point is Iscor, South Africa's premier steel producer (Iscor produces 5,3 million tons of steel per annum). Iscor, in collaboration with SAP PLM (product lifecycle management) specialists, Engineering Informatics (EI), has successfully integrated the design departments at three of the company's four major South African steel works into its operational ERP systems - delivering significant cost savings in the process.
"The typical legacy scenario is where the drawing office is running independently of the ERP system," says Rob Cells, EI business development manager. "In some cases the drawing office will be paper based. In other cases it will be electronic, but the drawing office database will not be integrated into the ERP system."
The drawbacks of running a drawing office in isolation from the ERP system include:
* Bottlenecks in workflow processes.
* Manual administration of drawings, which leads to human error.
* No systemic control of version changes in design files.
* The creation of operational inefficiencies, and loopholes in operational processes.
* Single location access to design files.
"It is surprising to see how many major companies have not yet integrated CAD files and other design documents into the ERP system," says Cells. "In many ways this lack of integration undermines the central principle underpinning an ERP system - namely control over processes and information, and a reduction in human error and the loopholes it creates."
Document management system
Cells' surprise at the current lack of integration between design data and operational ERP systems is particularly relevant when you consider that most ERP software already includes a DMS (document management system) module that has been developed with integration specifically in mind. Businesses that achieve integration between the design department and the ERP system will not only achieve considerable cost savings through operational efficiency and a reduction of human error - if the business is already running an operational ERP system it will not have to suffer capital outlay in purchasing a DMS solution.
It is also important to note that the most effective level of CAD/ERP integration can only be achieved by utilising the DMS module provided by the ERP vendor. External, standalone DMS solutions do have the ability to link to the ERP system - but this link is only on a surface level, and does not include full integration into workflow processes and version controls - and these are the features where the majority of bottom line business benefits are to be found.
Iscor has achieved this level of integration at its Vanderbijlpark, Vereeniging and Newcastle steel operations. In all three plants, the drawing offices were running in isolation to the ERP system, creating workflow bottlenecks and referential integrity concerns across operations.
This, for instance, would result in staff having to physically move to the drawing office in order to locate a particular design file. This file, although possibly stored electronically, would not be linked through to materials masters or the ERP system itself, creating a divide between operations and design. Access to plant design files is now open to any user of the Iscor ERP system. Drawing office staff has full access to design files, while operations staff are able to search for files, view and print them - from any location.
Critically, the link through to the ERP system allows users to 'click through' to materials masters and ordering processes. So, for example, if a plant worker wishes to order a specific pipe he can, by clicking on the design drawing, view the full details of the pipe; including cost, and whether the item is in stock and ready to order, or not.
"What you are looking at is a major business shift," says Cells. "The integrated CAD/ERP system governs the control of documents, design files and materials. Whether the user wants to update a file or wants to order a new part, referential integrity is ensured. And the processes are no longer location specific. Processes can occur in tandem, which allows multiple users to perform a variety of tasks simultaneously - a distinct contrast to the former system."
Integration between CAD files and the ERP system can be achieved regardless of the primary design package (MicroStation, AutoCAD, Intools, etc) and translates directly into costs savings, driven by the following improvements:
* Control over data critical to the successful maintenance of the business is enhanced.
* Security of design files - driven by ERP functionality - is significantly improved.
* System upgrades are absorbed into the overall ERP budget, thereby lowering the cost of running a fully integrated ERP DMS.
* Multiple user access to critical information is enabled, regardless of geographic location.
* Streamlined workflow and operational processes become a reality.
Historically, the drawing office has operated in near-isolation from the business itself. But today's leading companies have brought the drawing office firmly into the heart of the business - and have achieved immediate returns on their investment.
For more infomation contact Rob Cells, Engineering Informatics, 011 791 1028.
Iscor on CAD integration
At Schutte - electrical specialist - Iscor Vanderbijlpark, "Operational efficiency has improved significantly, translating into immediate time and cost savings benefits. Before the new system was introduced, draughtsmen had to wait for files to load onto the network before working on them. Now one can access files immediately - if you wish to create newer versions of existing files, the functionality is right at your finger tips. Version control is also an important feature of the new system. With CAD integration, new versions of design files are created automatically within the ERP system, hence file duplication is eliminated."
Wesley Nel - manager - Iscor Vereeniging Drawing Office: "Prior to the implementation of SAP Document Management our workflow was done manually. Now the workflow of the Drawing Office and control of drawings has improved significantly, along with the enhanced security of the data. Our documents are now secure, visible to the right parties and linked to different units, like materials management. It is a vast improvement on the former legacy system."
Frederick Potgieter - manager - Iscor Newcastle Drawing Office: "SAP is an existing ERP system within Iscor, so utilising its document management functionality was not only a logical move, it was a highly beneficial one, particularly in optimising the efficiency of our drawing room."