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Fast App: Back on Track via Engineering Document Management

By DE Editors

Plasma-Therm LLC is a supplier of advanced plasma process equipment to various specialty markets, including solid-state lighting, wireless, photomask, nanotechnology, micro- and nano-electro-mechanical systems (MEMS/NEMS), renewable energies, data storage, photonics and R&D. Incorporated in March 1975, Plasma-Therm, Inc. was sold in 2000 to Oerlikon, a large Swiss industrial conglomerate. In January 2009, four Plasma-Therm managers pooled their resources and bought controlling interest back. This executive management team now owns the company.

At the time of the buyout, Plasma-Therm was in a vulnerable position. “When the company changed ownership,” explains Kenneth Pizzo, product engineering manager at Plasma-Therm, “we were in the midst of designing several customer specials, required to fill orders that were already accepted.”

During that period, Pizzo had to organize an entire engineering department, and replace the document management solution from the former owner’s product lifecycle management (PLM) system as quickly and seamlessly as possible.

Synergis Software
Adept’s customizable workflow processes help Plasma-Therm manage
seven major design-to-order product lines

“We knew we needed to purchase some sort of product data management (PDM) system, due to the complexity of our product and the dynamic nature of our business,” says Pizzo. “Our systems have anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 parts on them. Trying to manage Inventor assemblies with that number of parts "along with their various revisions and changes "is impossible to imagine without some sort of a document management system.”

Following the buyout, Plasma-Therm needed to find a way to get products to market faster, and the team soon realized that a document management system would provide that advantage.

“Because our customers are among the industry leaders in semiconductor technology, we need to be agile and able to quickly develop custom solutions that meet their expectations,” explains Pizzo. “We must often modify our basic product line to do the special things the customer wants, get it in their fabrication facility and get their process developed on it very quickly "so we can make them happy before our competition does.”

A Document Management Rating System
To be sure they selected the right document management solution, the engineering department created a scoring system for potential candidates. They listed what each solution had to do to qualify, and how each solution ranked in four major categories:

part number management;
Inventor or SolidWorks bill of material (BOM) management;
change control management; and
document control management.

Adept Excels in Key Engineering Tasks
The Plasma-Therm LLC engineers had a number of criteria to rate each engineering document management system. Here’s how Adept scored in each category.

Part Number Management. Adept gives us great flexibility in controlling what fields of information we want to track, how we attach or associate with a part number, and how we represent it on the library card. It allows us to easily control data integrity through drop-down menus and character limitations. When we create part numbers, we use Adept’s file relationship capabilities to attach any number of drawings of any type to a part number for documentation.

Inventor/SolidWorks BOM Management. Adept makes it easy to find information on where an item is used, and information about the manual and automated parent/child relationships of the CAD files. It also provides a history on our BOMs, and allows us to preserve various versions, as well as perform mass changes and updates to information bi-directionally.

Change Control Management. Adept allows us to create the workflow we wanted, so we could easily find what ECN affected any document in our system. When we do change control, we create a document that describes the reason for the change. We have a master document to which we attach various files, then we pass it through our workflow.

Document Control Management. Adept has a very easy interface for setting up access rights and permissions for different users, especially in the areas of version and revision control.

Ease of Use. Adept was easy to implement, and training people was fast. When we had our legacy PLM, it would take a month or more to train new hires to use it. Now, we can have people trained in Adept in roughly a day.

Support for Multiple CAD Applications. Adept manages files for multiple CAD applications. We have seven product lines. Our legacy product lines are all exclusively in AutoCAD, but all the product lines since 2000 are in Inventor. Plus, we’re still looking at using SolidWorks.

Of equal importance was how each solution scored on ease of use and support for multiple CAD applications. When the final count was tallied, Synergis Software’s Adept ranked far ahead of the competition in all categories. (See “Adept Excels in Key Engineering Tasks.”)

Migrating Data
Once they selected Adept and trained key personnel, a programming team at Synergis Software started the crucial task of migrating the company’s manufacturing data from their legacy PLM system to Adept. There was a lot of pressure to complete the migration on schedule, Pizzo says.

“The PLM system we had been using was approaching its end date, and we would not be able to perform any of the product development or engineering changes required to keep systems shipping on time,” he explains. “Having our data migrated to Adept became mission critical. It had to happen like a light switch.”

The data migration proved to be challenging. “It took several cycles for us to extract the data from the previous PLM system and configure it into a format the programmers could use to create a new Adept database,” Pizzo says. “We focused on examining table structures to ensure we had all the correct documents and associated data.”

Just as they were ready to go live with their new Adept database, Pizzo and his team discovered nearly 3,000 documents that had not been transferred from the legacy system.    

The unexpected delay suddenly became a threat to Plasma-Therm’s production. “We were no longer able to access the legacy PLM system in order to affect any changes,” recalls Pizzo. “There were a lot of revenue shipments that required changes, and we couldn’t get to our documents.

“That’s when the guys at Synergis Software really pulled out all the stops to get the final data into Adept,” he continues. “Between their team and ours, we worked day and night for about a week "including the entire Thanksgiving holiday "to be ready to go into full production at the beginning of December (2009). In the end, the data migration automation saved us close to a month’s worth of manual work. More importantly, it helped us build a stable data platform for our new company.”

“We Make Snowflakes, Not Widgets”
Plasma-Therm currently has seven major product lines that it designs to-order. Each piece of equipment the company makes is unique "and constantly being improved.

“I would say that a product doesn’t go more than a couple of months without some portion of it being revised or redesigned for a special application,” notes Pizzo. “And we have to develop, install and test those special features very quickly.

“There are a great many engineering changes "probably on the order of 25 to 30 significant engineering changes per month, which is a very high level of activity compared to other companies, who make more standardized products that are very much alike,” he adds.

Adept ensures that the work processes are as flexible as possible, Pizzo says.

“Adept allows us to customize workflows and to streamline our operation,” he says. “We need a very light, efficient workflow, with a minimal number of steps. Adept provides us with what we need.”

In addition, the marketplace Plasma-Therm serves constantly fluctuates.

“We have about a five-year cycle,” explains Pizzo. “It’s usually two to three years feeling like you can barely keep up with orders, and then a couple of years where the orders come in a slow stream. Building our work force during these cycles without overstaffing was difficult. We needed a way to share information with contract engineers so they were able to support the engineering team during the market upturns, without being forced into growing our staff too quickly.”

Now, Pizzo uses Adept to create a “flexible work force,” which helps Plasma-Therm easily outsource engineering work and avoid hiring spikes as the engineering work starts to grow.

“A good document system allows me to use knowledgeable outside contractors when engineering activity spikes,” he says. “Adept gives them direct access to critical documents, and makes file transfers easy.”

For example, Plasma-Therm is currently contracting with an external agency, with about 2.5 workers dedicated to its projects.

“The advantage of Adept is that they can log in and work as if they are right here in the office,” Pizzo says. “Also, we can easily change the size of this external staff as demand requires.”

Synergis Software
An Adept engineering document management facilitates Plasma-Therm’s
ISO 9001 audit.

In some cases, the company uses contractors without access to Adept, Pizzo says.

“They can still use our drawing templates, and when they return their files, we import them into Adept and update all the document attributes and properties automatically using Adept’s bi-directional data features,” he explains. “As a result, we have two ways to work with external resources, which are both very efficient.”

Migrating from PLM to PDM Saves Time
Unlike many companies today, Plasma-Therm has moved away from a large, integrated PLM system to a combination of a PDM and enterprise resource planning (ERP) system where data is passed between the two.

Achieving ISO 9001 Compliance
Adept is being used to help the company achieve its ISO 9001certification. During a preliminary internal audit by a third party, it was determined that engineering did not require any corrective action to its business process.

“We sailed through the internal audit because all of our forms are under revision control within Adept,” says Kenneth Pizzo, product engineering manager at Plasma-Therm. “Additionally, Adept’s automatic numbering feature gave us the ability to store our forms as templates, with fields that automatically populate as we fill out Adept library cards. Adept is playing an important role as we prepare for our ISO 9001 audit.”

“The product lifecycle portion of our management is in our ERP, and our documents and data are managed by Adept,” explains Pizzo. “We can export data from Adept in a comma-delimited file, using the Export to Excel feature, and then send it to our ERP, where all the information automatically gets populated. That way, we don’t have to enter it a second time in the ERP. Some of the bills of material we are revising and releasing include hundreds of materials in one file. We’ve now completely eliminated the problem of typographical errors in our data transfer.”

A common problem found with the former PLM system was that the same information needed to be entered in several different places. That’s no longer the case with Adept, Pizzo says.

“With Adept, we’ve created forms for Word and Excel documents, as well as all of our CAD templates,” he explains. “We can populate the fields in these forms by linking them to Adept’s metadata. This eliminates the need to enter the data more than once. When we copy files, Adept automatically carries all the metadata associated with that file forward without retyping. It’s a real time saver.”

Since Adept’s rollout in December 2009, Plasma-Therm’s repository of documents has grown to between 150,000 to 200,000 documents. It includes all types of product design documents, such as models and drawings, procedures, technical specifications, OEM cut sheets, catalog pages and change notification documents. It also tracks and manages electrical schematics, printed circuit board files, and even Word documents for : engineering change requests (ECRs), engineering change notices (ECNs) and Excel documents for BOMs.

With Adept up and running for about eight months, Pizzo says he continues to find more ways to put it to work.

“Adept is more flexible than we expected, which allows us to set up our data management environment exactly the way we want it,” he says. “I can even put together executive dashboards for the ECRs that let us quickly see the ECR name and number, its status, the date that it was created, the expected completion date or, if it’s been processed, the actual completion date. That way, people can log in through Explorer and see the status of each project.”

Pizzo notes that one of his team’s requirements when changing over to the new system was to “work with capable, responsive and accessible people.” He says the Adept team has more than fit the bill.

“The team at Synergis Software had an enormous amount of experience in data migration, and their knowledge helped us through a difficult period,” he says. “That’s where Synergis Software really provided significant value. They went to the mat for us. They did everything in their power to make our company’s launch a success.”

Synergis Software

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