Electronic document management offers many advantages
Improves engineering productivity
By Christine Knapik
Electronic document management systems can be an engineer’s best friend – a tool that is proven to enhance the productivity of its users and will liberate engineers from the most tedious aspects of their job, improving the quality and accuracy of their work through accurate documentation. Integrated electronic document management systems – electrical computer-aided engineering (E-CAE) – automate all manually performed functions. In the past, separate systems have been used to automate some of the tasks using multiple software programs, e.g., a computer-aided design (CAD) package to create graphical schematics and a table-based Microsoft Excel spreadsheet to create parts lists. Those programs do not share data with each other, which necessitates a great deal of manual (and redundant) data entry, cross-referencing, and error-checking. These approaches have a great potential to foster incorrect documentation. Today’s advanced E-CAE programs have automated these and many other tasks. Engineers are able to provide correct documentation on a timely basis, eliminating tedious error checking tasks that once took days or weeks to complete.
The latest generation of E-CAE programs has improved decisively from CAD and earlier CAE tools by adding a powerful central database that brings together a wide range of information in one accessible database. This database can hold a large archive of recurrent content, ready for insertion into a project with a single keystroke. Engineers can convert project documentation into different languages or regional, national, and international standards.
With all of their labor- and time-saving features, database-centric CAE programs provide a greater benefit of ownership than older CAD software by making the user more productive. Even more compelling is their capacity to make electronic document management more efficient and cost-effective, with gains like:
Improved accuracy. The database-driven E-CAE delivers a systematic reduction of errors, improvement in error-checking, and near elimination of data redundancy. That means few, if any, errors survive to the manufacturing stage or beyond.
Transparency within the organization. With collaboration between engineers within one organization, changes are documented and updated simultaneously and can be seen by anyone currently working on the project. Modifications are transparent and well-understood by all involved, vastly improving workflows among these engineering disciplines and enabling them to work simultaneously on a project instead of sequentially.
Creating efficiencies through transparency. The database can be integrated into a company’s IT architecture, allowing other departments to monitor documentation progress for more accurate systems modifications, retrofits, maintenance, and project coordination. System integrators gain more accurate customer quotes and timely reports to keep projects running smoothly. Important to manufacturing organizations are improvements in cost-effective stocking of components, which result in more reliable production and delivery scheduling. This fosters collaboration among designers at multiple locations, between manufacturer and customers, suppliers and service technicians.
Streamlined interaction with stakeholders. Project files can be exported to users and re-imported with changes to speed up revisions and approvals. They can then be exported to subcontractors to shorten delivery times. During the design process, engineers can import component data directly from vendor catalogs.
Fostering international collaborations. With many corporations having multiple locations around the world, a robust E-CAE system enables seamless documentation in the language required. These systems transcend geography and language barriers by automatically converting projects into different languages and output formats, making it easier to share real-time data.
When actual project work begins using E-CAE, engineers can work from different starting points that best suit the project’s requirements. Facing a rush order, for example, an electrical engineer might assemble any documentation from any starting point. A parts list can be compiled to assure the availability of components for an early manufacturing start; the job can be finished by numbering devices and wires and generating all documentation with the system.
Most CAE systems are discipline-specific. A select few support design software for electrical and other engineering disciplines, becoming, in effect, powerful multidisciplinary platforms. Traditionally, engineering disciplines work separately, often with different software tools. They pass a project back and forth as content is added or changed, often missing many changes to the project as a result. When a process engineer adds a pneumatic-controlled butterfly valve to a design, the fluid engineer must add the fluid drive, and the electrical engineer must provide control for it. Working separately, each designer’s intent is self-referencing and may not be well understood by his or her colleagues. Working together using a single system, the same engineers form a multidisciplinary team that handles a project concurrently, on the same platform, with greater speed, accuracy, and a high degree of assurance. Data is shared across all disciplines, and, as changes are made, the system updates it automatically. By using a multidisciplinary system, documentation will always be correct throughout the entire projects, from electrical, to fluid, to process, and to panel layouts.
Revision management has been streamlined. Traditionally, the process of obtaining customer revisions and applying them is a delay-prone activity that can cause errors in documentation. Now, with today’s E-CAE tools, project documentation can be exported to users and customers in formats like smart PDFs. Smart PDF documents for E-CAE are used to import/export markups and jump between the bookmarks and elements within the PDF. The needed changes are then re-imported and can be either accepted or declined by the engineer. Once a design is finalized, the E-CAE tool automatically generates a complete build package for manufacturing that includes all diagrams, lists, and component IDs and, if desired,
automated setups for Numerical Control (NC) machining and wire processing can be exported as well.
In today’s highly automated manufacturing environment, a proficient E-CAE system can generate precise data files for various automation and NC equipment. These would include wire processing and enclosure manufacturing equipment. This is an undeniable benefit for the customer’s productivity and quality gains. This key feature eliminates error-prone and time-consuming tasks of data input and manual manufacturing operations. If taken one step further, data files can be sent to labeling equipment, wiring lists directly to the wiring machines, and drilling information to the NC machine. The time of having someone physically input data to a label machine or spreadsheet is eliminated.
The maintenance technician is similarly empowered. Product data is typically available in multiple electronic formats, suitable for continuous updating. Project PDF (Adobe Acrobat) files can be accessed on a laptop or tablet for quick and mobile troubleshooting and resolution. The technician can use the smart PDF and its direct linking capabilities to navigate between schematic pages or even click on a part to view the data sheet within the PDF. This makes troubleshooting easy. After identifying the problems, the PDF can be red-lined and easily imported into the E-CAE system. All updates from the red-lined smart PDF will be documented into the project with the required changes. This allows the transfer and incorporation of all modified data to be shared between the customer, contractors, and service technicians. The E-CAE viewing tool can be connected to the visualization tool running in the control room. This is a far cry from arriving at a customer location to find the machine’s printed manual missing, damaged, or hopelessly out of date.
A key word in the process above is “sustainability:” During maintenance and servicing, the smart PDF capability ensures long-term access to interdisciplinary project documentation. This format is a standard for the long-term archiving of electronic documents in accordance with industry standards. Reliable archiving is also indispensible in light of the requirements of machinery directives that require complete documentation for at least ten years. The smart PDF supports paperless workflow and ensures that the complexity of large projects is simplified.
Not all E-CAE or electronic documentation systems offer the same power or features. Businesses planning to acquire one should assess the candidates from the following perspectives:
Goals. Prioritize your major goals and determine which systems offer the appropriate solution for your organization. The greater the economic benefit you desire, the more changes are required through more workflow support and integration. Do you want to establish maximum standardization in automation design? Do you want to improve how engineering workflows are structured? Do you want documentation that will automatically update as changes are made? Do you want global language management of documentation? Then you will need a CAE system that supports multidisciplinary design and possesses very large storage capacity. Organizations may not imagine needing such capacity, but usually they make good use of it. For archiving the extensive documentation, the CAE system should feature the ability to test the data as being current and verified error-free – and do so with ease.
Integration. The data backbone of the system should be robust and able to maintain consistency and avoid redundancy. Organizations can maximize the benefit of ownership if the database is linked to an ERP (enterprise resource planning), PDM (product data management), or other enterprise software in the IT (information technology) and PLM (product lifecycle management) landscape. Integration helps avoid obsolescence and costly future upgrades. Open communication leads to collaboration and better, more efficient results, such as synchronization into a PLC system. By being able to synchronize with a PLC system, your system’s documentation will always be accurate. The individual PLC component connections and I/O lists that take place in process measuring and control, fluid, and electrical engineering during the course of project planning data will now be exchanged between the CAE system and the PLC tool, so the engineers will have access to the data collected. The data will be available in all documentation, such as plant overviews, schematics for fluid and electrical engineers, PLC hardware configurations, and I/O assignments during PLC design.
Support. Most operations require live support, yet only some vendors provide it. They generally need an implementation strategy and staff training. A vendor should be able to provide a strategy for the former and qualified personnel for the latter. Some require special interfaces, custom solutions, or expert troubleshooting. This is why a vendor should have real engineering documentation knowhow on its consulting team. Besides supporting the implementation of the CAE application, engineering consultants should be able to identify opportunities to optimize workflows that boost the productivity of your entire engineering organization. When implemented smoothly and professionally, the introduction of a modern documentation system begins contributing almost immediately to the bottom line.
Prior to the advent of advanced, database-centric E-CAE systems, the cost-benefit analysis for investing in a CAE software package was relatively straightforward: Estimate how its automation features would increase the productivity of a single user in a single discipline, and then extrapolate that over all users covered by the license(s). But most are now seeing computer-aided engineering software as a revolution in electrical engineering documentation management. With a full commitment from senior managers, a company adopting such a powerful program strengthens its competitive position. By embracing this new technology, it sends a signal to its customers that it plans to remain relevant to their needs. Conversely, organizations not benefiting from this technology risk losing out to competitors who are adopting this technology.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christine Knapik (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the marketing communications manager for EPLAN Software & Services, North America. She develops and educates North American markets on the efficiencies of computer aided engineering.