Congratulations! After months (years, perhaps) of careful examination of some of the numerous ERP solutions available on the market, your steering committee (or perhaps the owner, out of sheer impulsiveness) has finally made its choice. This one is the right one, no doubt! And since your company’s production mode is largely in Engineered-To-Order, a decision has been made to select a state-of-the-art ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration solution that will allow you to transfer engineering and manufacturing data back and forth, in real time, thus relieving your engineering staff of the tedium of manually creating and updating complex bills of materials, while greatly improving those BoMs’ accuracy.

Then comes the magic moment: drafting the contract, which will cover not only a sufficient number of ERP seats, but also, in all likelihood, a plethora of third-party applications, which is only natural because, after all, those ERP vendors cannot be everything to everyone. So far, so good…

But wait, something appears to be missing: haven’t the ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration solution and the matching implementation support services have been left out? No, not really, because your implementation partner confirmed that this was not required initially, and could always be implemented during “Phase 2”. So, it’s all good, isn’t it?

The Importance of ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM Integration

CAD PDM PLM ERP Integration Diagram

Hmmmm… Not quite. You see, building a system capable of integrating engineering (CAD/PDM/PLM) and manufacturing (ERP/MRP) data requires careful planning, just like any other component of the planned ERP system. “Integration”, as its Latin roots tangere (“touch”) and in (yeah, you guessed it – “in”) imply, means you are going to create a very intimate mixture of data that was traditionally contained in 2 very hermetic silos. It is a very synergetic combination of information. Mixing them together correctly will, not unlike hydrogen and oxygen, yield a lot of power, and requires careful handling… and planning.

“Tear Down This Wall!”

The process of implementing an ERP system usually requires the remodeling of your business processes, which can be compared to the remodeling your home. Integrating engineering and manufacturing data is akin to tearing down a wall. It requires careful scrutiny of the existing “as-built” wall, as well as the layout of adjacent rooms. Otherwise, you might very well end up with a beautiful living room overlooking two splendid panoramas: on the South side, a breathtaking mountain view and, on the North side, your spouse showering (his/her singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” full blast may not help enjoy either view).

Consequently, it is vital to do an in-depth analysis of all of the data, both manufacturing and engineering, existing and desired, as early as possible during the analysis phase of the ERP system implementation process. Otherwise, a likely outcome is a cacophony of data that will be quite displeasing for everyone involved from engineering, manufacturing, IT, finance… and the CEO.

 

 

The Impact of ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration on engineering data

Once “the wall is down”, an immense field of new possibilities will be open to you. This, in turn, means that a few most relevant questions must be answered prior to actually building the new system. Here are just of few of those, for which the engineering people must find answers very, very early in the process, as it has a dramatic impact on the ERP data model as well:

Item Numbering

How will numbering be handled? Automatic? CAD-user-generated? Sequential? Rule-based? And that is only the easy part. The harder part is: who is going to be in control? CAD/PDM/PLM? ERP? End-user? Other? Some integration solutions will allow numbering to be under the control of the ERP system (which is often the way to go), but will allow you to pass item numbers in real time to CAD users, usually making everyone’s life easier. But then again, there are a lot of questions you will have to answer, after polling your end-users, during the design phase.

Item Descriptions

Who is going to supply those? CAD users? ERP users? Both (that is the likely outcome)? If a discrepancy is found between CAD end ERP descriptions, how is it going to be resolved? Automatically? Manually, by the CAD user? Really? Please be careful there… perhaps your CAD users are the main contributors, but they may not be the main beneficiaries. You do not want to bother them with strings of questions to which the answer is pretty much always the same anyway!

Raw Material Data

Raw material data is an interesting animal: it is often totally (partially, at best) absent from CAD documents, yet it is a vital part of any well-designed manufacturing management system. Integrating CAD and ERP systems requires some very important design decisions that have a tremendous impact on the shaping of the planned system:

Raw Material Item Number

Optional? Mandatory for manufactured items? It should be normally supplied by engineering users, but how? Manual entry? A lookup on the ERP system’s Item Table? No entry at all, and then populated by the manufacturing users (Not. Recommended. At. All.)?

Raw Material Quantity

If a CAD user enters the aforementioned item number, then the quantity can no longer be optional. Make sure your integration solution will behave accordingly, at the risk of wreaking havoc in your manufacturing BoMs. The most sophis­ti­ca­ted integration systems will allow, under certain conditions, automatic extrac­tion of the raw material quantity from the CAD parts documents, and pass the cor­rect quantity to the ERP BoM

Raw Material Units of Measure

Nowadays, nothing could possibly justify entering this manually. At least, it should be populated by the CAD user using an ERP lookup that will return only the units of measure applicable to this raw material. Even better, some can even use the CAD metadata to populate that field automatically. Yet, the ERP system must be designed and configured from the very beginning in such a way that raw material data will circulate flawlessly – and effortlessly – back and forth.

Vendor Data

State-of-the-art, bidirectional ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration systems will allow you, if desired, to fetch – and update, if you wish to allow it – any vendor information form the ERP system. Is that something you want? If so, you want to make sure that the integration is designed accordingly, and that your implementation partners can make recommendations on the best practices in this area… or any other covered by this publication, for that matter.

Pricing Data

Exposing pricing data to the CAD users is a great way to help them make better design decisions at a lower cost. Some smaller organizations will allow their engineering users to update pricing information, while others will adopt different policies. What is it going to be?

Other Product and Manufacturing Data

There is a whole universe of manufacturing data out there. That encompasses not only “classic” data such as stocking and reordering policies, economic ordering quantity (long story short, anything you may find in your Inventory Management system), but also custom data. Some integrations even use process information (plasma, laser, NC, etc.) stored in the ERP system, merging them into a 2D CAD drawing with part layouts to generate. Among other things, CNC and nesting programs. There is practically no limit to what you may bring down into the engineering data model. It is simply a matter of planning ahead, and implementing the system accordingly.

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The Impact of ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration on manufacturing data

Just like a state-of-the art ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration, organizational impacts are bidirectional. Let us take a look at just a few of many ERP data objects that will be impacted when you raise the sledge hammer and tear the data wall down:

BoM versioning and revisioning

One of the most interesting challenges. For example, versioning and revisioning, like humans, cannot serve two masters. You will have to decide who will be the boss in those matters, observing some fundamental principles regarding the data flow as well as the locus of some crucial triggers, such as the actual release of product. Make sure to have access to solid guidance, as this is where most of the pitfalls of ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration can be found.

Also, be prepared to carefully examine your current process, and determine how it can be emulated or, better yet, improved, by making the most out of what your brand-new integration makes possible. Also, make sure to develop a proper knowledge of the actual meaning of the data, as some ERP vendors apparently enjoy indulging in misnomers. For example, a BoM “version” in ERP will usually be mapped to a BoM revision in a PDM system.

Leveraging Legacy Engineering Data

More often than not, ERP implementation teams leave huge amounts of money on the table, simply because they failed to maximize the reusability of legacy CAD data. Why on earth would we want to initialize our Item and BoM Masters by bulk-importing or, even worse, manually entering inaccurate Item and BoM data, when it is out there already, and begging to be reused? Of course, some scrubbing may be required, but the most advanced systems will help you expedite the scrubbing and cleanup process, while ensuring that whatever gets into the ERP system has been properly validated. The payback to that approach is huge, but can only be collected through proper planning in the early stages of the implementation.

Drawings

Some drawings may contain a wealth of potentially useful ERP data, while some others are almost completely void of useful Item and BoM data. An early assessment of the metadata that can be found in those drawings can bring a spectacular Return on Investment in some ERP implementations.

Multi-source BoMs

This is another area where ERP implementation teams completely miss a pretty attractive ROI, simply because they were not aware of the full potential of leading edge ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration systems. Let’s take the example of products that make extensive use of both 3D parametric systems (e.g. SOLIDWORKS, Autodesk, Siemens, PTC, etc.) and automation design software (SOLIDWORKS Electrical, AutoCAD Electrical, SEE Electrical, etc.). The BoMs for those products are actually of the « hybrid » type, and many customers fail to plan for integration of all the engineering disciplines. In some other cases, a properly designed integration successfully involved as many as 3 distinct CAD platforms used jointly to build the product BoMs.

The Impact of ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM Integration on the Engineering Business Process

Let’s face it: the integration of engineering and manufacturing is not so much about integrating the data, but rather about integrating business processes that are often highly compartmented. The diagnostic and design phases of an ERP implementation are a great opportunity to map said processes by taking into consideration the new possibilities that ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration brings. Ignoring those new capabilities in the beginning often means leaving out very significant improvements in team communication that might result from the widening of “data horizons” by harmonizing many engineering and manufacturing processes, while shortening business cycles.

Who Supplies the Engineering Data?

Surprise! Although the data per se, i.e. the geometries, are the brainchild of the engineering department, the bulk of metadata, i.e. engineering data that does not, as such, have a geometric representation, is usually owned not by the engineering systems, but rather the ERP-related systems: purchased items, raw materials, all of the pricing, vendor, just to name a few, are created and maintained in the ERP system. Determining which of those metadata objects will be made available to engineering users is the result of close collaboration between all teams, and must necessarily be taken into consideration when mapping the business processes, as well as during the system design phase.

Engineering Users Are the Main Contributors, But…

… they are not the main beneficiaries. This cannot be overemphasized. Consequently, when mapping business processes and the associated data, one must carefully observe the golden rule: “Less Is More”. You want to make available to the designers all the metadata that can help make their job easier (and more fun!), while minimizing the amount of data they have to validate and enter manually prior to completing the actual synchronization of CAD and ERP data. Involving them as early as possible in the implementation process will translate into better adoption… and a better implementation in the end.

The Impact of Integration on the Manufacturing Business Process

Have no fear of redundant statements: this integration thing is a two-way street, and this will also translate into a huge change of paradigm for manufacturing as well. They will see much more accurate BoMs coming in… and at a much faster pace (a 25% faster product design cycle is not uncommon in integrated environments). A good practice is to involve production managers in “dry runs” to gather a maximum of feedback in the early stages of the implementation. That will greatly improve their contributions to the design of the ERP system, which in turn is always beneficiary to end-user adoption and all the ensuing benefits.

Who Supplies the Manufacturing Data?

Long story short: everyone. Engineering, Purchasing, Production, everyone. Integration creates a convergence of processes as well as data that greatly enhances productivity, as long as responsibilities are clearly established. This is normally accomplished during the diagnostic and design phase, which must necessarily take into account the new paradigm of an integrated, multi-department vision of the Bill of Material.

What About the Routings?

Although many ERP systems tend to lead us to a different conclusion, routings are an integral part of the BoM. State-of-the-art integration solutions can usually handle work instructions, and the benefits of implementing those data objects in both the ERP system and the ERP & CAD/PDM/PLM integration are potentially quite substantial. If you have not considered including them in your upcoming ERP system implementation, well… it may not be too late to reconsider!

Conclusion

Productivity gains of 5%-25% are not uncommon among ETO-oriented manufacturers who implement CAD/PDM/PLM and ERP systems. However, experience shows that much the benefits depend largely on careful planning of said integration, since there are many variables that must be properly set, long before the design phase of an ERP system implementation.

Ricardo Talbot, P. Eng.
Elmo Solutions Inc.
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