Picture-perfect Product Data Management

Richard "Chester" Holleran still remembers the bad old days of engineering document management at Agfa Corp., back when the company used a paper-based release and change system. "We were pushing information between Product Development, Purchasing, Supply Chain, Field Service and Manufacturing," Holleran says. "Things took a long time to get anywhere, there were a lot of inaccuracies, and we had a lot of little islands of automation that were no more sophisticated than an occasional spreadsheet."

Holleran is the senior engineering manager in the Systems Engineering Group within the Graphic Imaging Technology Center (GITC) division at Wilmington, Mass.-based Agfa Corp., the U.S.-based division of Belgium's Agfa-Gevaert Group. GITC manufactures digital equipment used to put images on printing plates. These complex machines can have upward of 2,000 or 3,000 parts and are used in printing and publishing operations around the world.

A Poor Man's PDM

Back in the late 1990s, Holleran's group began exploring solutions to help the company better manage its digital engineering assets, including everything from drawings and specification documents to engineering change orders. "We were looking to solve the standard set of problems, which revolve around timeliness, information release, correctness of information, reduction of scrap, more effective planning and those sorts of things," Holleran explains.

Agfa came to focus on a class of products for product data management (PDM) offered primarily by the providers of solutions for computer-aided design (CAD). The company's CAD vendor proposed a $3 million pilot project using the provider's latest product lifecycle management (PLM) solution, and the vendor even went through a comprehensive return-on-investment process to demonstrate that Agfa would see an ROI within 18 months. But Holleran says that because the vendor had only recently acquired the PDM solution, he had doubts about the software's integration with the rest of the provider's PLM suite. Not to mention the $3 million price tag. "That didn't fly," Holleran states flatly.

At the same time, Holleran says he noticed a fundamental similarity between the way the PDM solution worked and the way a document management solution that Agfa had been using for a couple years worked. Agfa used the solution, from a provider then called IntraNet Solutions (later renamed Stellent), to manage documents required to maintain the company's ISO certification. Holleran and his colleagues realized that much of the engineering information that Agfa dealt with was also document-based and could likely be managed in the kind of relational database offered by Stellent's content management system. All that was lacking was the necessary workflow to control the distribution of the engineering information, approvals processes and so on.

"We thought that we could probably make a 'poor man's PDM' solution, as we called it, by taking the document management capability of the Stellent product and building some workflow of our own on top of it — and that's what we did," Holleran says.

Building the Repository

The first step in this process involved taking tens of thousands of documents that existed in various forms throughout the company, much of it on microfiche, and converting the documents into electronic form to create a vast, online repository of every piece of released information that the prepress unit had ever produced. That process took a few months, and much of the work involved sending the microfiche out to a service provider for scanning and conversion; eventually the repository reached more than 150,000 documents.

Once this first phase was complete, Agfa set about building the necessary database and workflow management capabilities on top of the repository with the goal of automating the engineering document management process to the extent possible. This phase took about two years, primarily because the company only had one-and-a-half full-time-equivalents working on the project as a sideline activity. Technically, the tasks of getting the repository up and running and creating the workflow were not particularly challenging, according to Holleran, who says that the "tricky part" of the project was ensuring acceptance and adoption of the system among the company's employees.

Of course, acceptance was not an issue for the documents library set up at the start of the initiative. "People adopted that immediately," says Holleran, who explains that previously finding documents usually meant searching manually for paper copies or trying to decipher eight-character file names on a UNIX server to find the correct file. The Web-based repository cut the search process down to a few keystrokes and a matter of seconds.

Reducing Waste and Rework

The challenge moving forward from the time the repository debuted, then, was ensuring that Agfa employees fully accepted the new process for storing new documents and updating existing documents in the system. In part, the company handled this issue by simply doing away with the old paper system for preserving documents, but Holleran's team also adopted a proactive strategy to encourage acceptance of the new system.

"We sponsored a study group, bringing people together who were performing the jobs that were going to be rolled up into this system," he explains. "And we adopted the attitude right up front that we weren't trying to replace anybody or automate anybody's job. We were trying to consolidate the information so that the individuals involved could use their skills to do something other than maintain a spreadsheet or run around looking for a piece of paper."

Increased efficiency has been a primary benefit of the new system, Holleran says. "As soon as an engineer begins the process of making a change, everybody down the line is flagged that something is happening to this particular assembly or this particular part. That causes them to evaluate their own activities and how they might be affected by that."

Enabling Success

In addition, the couple hundred users actively working with Agfa's engineering documents through the system now include dozens of outside suppliers who access the repository through the company's extranet. Now, instead of an army of Agfa employees making copies of blueprints and putting them in overnight pouches to send out to suppliers, the company's staff can communicate with the suppliers by e-mail, and the suppliers can log into the system and instantaneously get whatever document they might need. "People don't spend hours a day at the copy machine," Holleran says.

Agfa did not attempt to track a concrete ROI on the project, but Holleran is confident that the company's estimated quarter-million dollar investment in the initiative — covering software licensing, some customization work done by Stellent, and Agfa's own staff time — quickly paid for itself.

Asked what advice he might offer to another company looking to undertake a similar project, Holleran offers this: "The attitude that we adopted about enabling people rather than trying to automate their job was vitally important. People's biggest problem was timely access to correct information, and if you can solve that problem — and I think that you can solve it for a relatively modest fee — you'll be fine."

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