In any manufacturing business, bill of material maintenance is a chore. But in a project-centric, engineered-to-order manufacturing business, it’s a downright dangerous chore.
Make a mistake, in short, and the consequences can be painful. For if the ‘as built’ or ‘as manufactured’ bill of material doesn’t match the ‘as designed’ bill of material, then product failure or expensive remediation are the all too probable outcomes.
Not to mention delays, inspection costs and compliance concerns.
But at Thetford-based EXHEAT, a manufacturer of heating and control solutions designed for hazardous environments such as the petrochemical industry, such concerns are a thing of the past.
How so? Because the process of creating or amending a product design in the company’s PTC Windchill PLM solution then automatically creates or updates bill of material records in the business’s Microsoft Dynamics AX solution.
“We don’t maintain or modify bill of material records at all in Dynamics AX – it’s all done within Windchill, which is where the relevant workflows and approvals are set up,” explains Sanjay Bhandari, EXHEAT’s IT manager. “Quite literally, it’s ‘one version of the truth’ – there’s no possibility of the bill of material in AX saying one thing, and the supposedly equivalent bill of material in PTC saying another.”
It’s a clever trick – and not one that’s commonly encountered. Despite which, says Bhandari, achieving it wasn’t that difficult: PTC provided some software code in the form of a utility, which Microsoft AX partner Columbus IT then adapted and modified to EXHEAT’s needs.
The starting point, he relates, was the recognition that integration was desirable. At the time, the company was reevaluating its preferred CAD platform with a view to moving 2D CAD to 3D CAD, and integration with Dynamics AX was firmly on the list of desirable objectives.
That said, the starting point was inauspicious: the company’s existing design platform was almost exclusively AutoCAD, with just one designer using PTC Pro/ENGINEER within the R&D department. Live production designs, though, were exclusively done on AutoCAD.
Yet a review of the CAD market, together with a detailed codification of EXHEAT’s CAD requirements, revealed that AutoCAD probably wasn’t the best option for the business going forward.
Quite simply, says Bhandari, “PTC Pro/ENGINEER looked to be the better integrated package, and closer to our needs.”
Better still, he adds, implementing PTC’s Windchill PLM solution alongside a switch to Pro/ENGINEER would deliver process improvements in terms of workflow, approvals, and the publication of designs to the rest of the business – manufacturing, for instance, would automatically only be able to view the most latest version of any design, with all earlier versions locked-out.
The decision taken, the formal move to Pro/ENGINEER took around six months, relates Bhandari: “It was routine enough: buying licenses, training the users in the new solution, and modelling within Pro/ENGINEER the individual components that make up our products.”
Next came a similar – if shorter – process to acquire and implement PTC’s Windchill, culminating in the ability to design in Pro/ENGINEER and then publish those designs to Windchill, replete with approvals and workflow.
Finally came the link between Windchill and Dynamics AX, with Dynamics AX partner Columbus IT advising on options, and then customising the sample code that had been made available by PTC.
And the actual operation of the link between the two solutions couldn’t be more straightforward, stresses Bhandari.
“Every time a design is created or amended, Windchill publishes an XML file containing the relevant bill of material to an internal FTP site that is monitored by AX every 30 minutes,” he says. “When AX finds any files there, it processes them — and it’s as simple as that. Bill of material maintenance is completely automatic, with PTC Windchill acting as the sole ‘system of record’.
And the savings are considerable. Quite apart from the avoidance of error, emphasises Bhandari, there are significant productivity gains too.
“We’re a project-based business, and probably never build the same design twice,” he sums up. “Take away the need to maintain bills of material in two separate systems, and the opportunity for savings is impressive. To say we’re delighted is an understatement.”