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'Digital thread' unifies discrete manufacturing

Oct. 1, 2015
But it's tough to get started without proper planning and involvement from all parts of the supply chain
About the author
Dave Perkon is technical editor for Control Design. He has worked with a wide variety of fortune 500 companies in the medical, semiconductor, automotive, defense and solar industries.

"We started our Proficy journey on the aerospace side of our business with 50 pages of documents for each of our 30,000 components," noted Mark Tudor, vice president, information technology, Eaton, in his Minds + Machines 2015 presentation today in San Francisco. Eaton was trying to solve several problems in turning to GE's Proficy software platform, number one being document management.

Document management was being done in their ERP system where engineering information was stored in text fields, Tudor related. The design and quality information was scattered and data was collected manually. Quality management couldn't perform global revisions if a common part changed, making change management difficult and the need for the operator to access several plant systems complicated training as well.

"Before this software upgrade, if we built something wrong, it was difficult to know; training costs were huge, as were the problems," Tudor said. "Compliance relied on paper-based traceability methods and analytics were not seeing root causes. We had to store data manually and there was a huge amount we needed to keep for as long as the plane was flying, 30 years or more."

"Get all the folks involved so they understand the impact and benefits." Eaton's Mark Tudor on the need for widespread communication and education when undertaking a project that will affect many employees' work processes.  

In the past, complex discrete manufacturing required large amount of information that was managed manually or in multiple systems that were tied together by the operator and production process. Today, there are methods to enable a "digital thread" throughout these complex manufacturing operations.

A persistent digital thread

Better production decisions are enabled when data flows between systems and this digital thread stretches from engineering, through operations to shipping. At Eaton, GE Proficy software is now connecting data to people, machines and processes. It is being used to pull everything together in this and other large, discrete manufacturing applications.

"As the Proficy software was deployed, visual work instructions helped reduce training time and helped ensure it was done right the first time," Tudor noted. "The paperwork issues went away. We also leveraged standard work instructions and best practices across all sites. At the start we had 458 standard processes and reduced it to 87 with the new system in place." Better control of and access to the documentation made record retention a built-in function and global changes could be readily made.

Tudor noted some important lessons learned. One was to not underestimate how long it will take to pull design and production data out of ERP and into Proficy. He recommended a modular approach instead of doing it all at once. Break it down into small pieces and do it in phases," Tudor said. "Good definition of these phases is also important to 'box in' the work and to know when you are done."

"Focus on early, quick wins," he added. "We didn't have enough quick wins because we bit off more than we could chew at the start. However, once we cleaned up the data, manufacturing and engineering loved it. And the operators, once they learned the new system, were strong supporters."

Tudor also recommended that when starting out and scoping out what you are going to do, involve all parties including quality, operators, manufacturing, engineering, IT and the front office. "Get all the folks involved so they understand the impact and benefits," he said.

More powerful than a locomotive

A similar Proficy implementation at GE Transportation was described by Rob Burnett, IT leader, supply chain & Brilliant Factory. "We knew there were challenges and that it would be difficult," Burnett began. "There were thousands of operators and we were asking them to change their work," he said. "It is a difficult environment to forecast and plan, while continuing to properly serve our customers."

With Proficy, the evolution started with process visibility and went to analytics and to the digital thread, Burnett said. "We needed a lot more information about our parts and processes," Burnett commented. "On parts both big and small, it was significant work for our operators to answer 15 or 20 questions, and they needed to use five different data entry tools to do it."

By observing and talking to operators, the team came up with creative approaches to speed the operators' work. Automated data collection approaches were identified and mobile tablets were introduced to the shop floor. These techniques improved the operator experience by reducing walking and data entry. 

"We also connected our digital thread through field services," notes Burnett. "With the field and part data, we can dynamically route the part through the shop. The data analytics can also be used to determine what services we can bypass. For example, many of the newer devices don't need to be rebuilt. We will be focusing on expanding the dynamic routing and forecasting of parts, knowing just a few days can greatly help our customers."