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"Playing by rules" can help OEMs streamline manufacturing processes.

In January, industry analyst firm CIMdata identified an emerging market for enterprise software technology that automates the complex decisions surrounding design, quotation, and manufacturing processes. This new market is being driven by increased pressure to reduce product lead times, especially among to-order manufacturers.

Rules-driven product management (RPM) is a category of enterprise software that allows discrete manufacturers to respond to customer-specific orders more rapidly, accurately, and efficiently by capturing and reusing engineering and manufacturing roles. RPM is an integral part of a product lifecycle management (PLM) environment that supports product development activities. The CIMdata report estimates that based on existing conditions, the RPM market currently has a total cumulative opportunity ceiling of about $6 billion.

The report describes the foundation of RPM, identifies its key business drivers and benefits, gives specific implementation examples, and assesses the market and one vendor's position in that market.

A recent Aberdeen report on mid-size manufacturing sets the stage for RPM. "Improving customer service no longer translates to simply improving complete and on-time orders," the March report stated. "Instead, customers are demanding shorter order lead times while at the same time asking for more price reductions."

Engineer-to-order manufacturing firms are facing pressure, and not just from their customers. Staffing limitations at engineer-to-order shops are preventing custom manufacturers from being able to dedicate engineers to responding to custom orders. When you combine these staffing limitations and cutbacks with an aging engineering talent pool, concern over knowledge capture becomes of decisive importance.

To understand the link between RPM and PLM, you must first understand how these two business approaches handle knowledge. Knowledge, as defined by CIMdata, is the embodiment of experience and data in a directly usable form.

"Preserving the corporate knowledge base is an essential business requirement in today's competitive world," the report states. "An organization's past experiences are what allow it to work faster and smarter and provide advantages over competitors. On the product design side, this translates directly into an ability for designers and engineers to record their decision making process and to access previous design successes and failures--remember that typically around 80 percent of any design is based on previous work. They must be able to do both of these in a convenient and timely way--studies have shown that engineers spend 35 percent or more of their work time just searching for information that is known to exist. For others in the enterprise, easy access to an organized knowledge base allows faster and more accurate bidding and sales quotes, better information to provide maintenance, improved planning for new products, more accurate costing, improved product consistency, fewer part numbers, and many other benefits."

RPM, in CIMdata's view, exists within the PLM environment "as a capture point for rules that are applied to product data that is managed by the data management component of PLM."

A "rule," as defined by RPM vendor RuleStream, is any thought that can be quantified. If you can express it so that another human can get the same results you do, then it is a "rule." Rules come in many different types, and can govern part selection and part quantity; manage geometric relationships such as size, location, orientation, and mass properties; compute functional properties; constrain pricing and cost; perform compliance checks; and even enforce the decision path for generating a set of deliverables. For a long time, product design engineers have tried to capture these rules--but as we'll see later, the location in which you capture and store rules is important.

By applying a knowledge management framework to PLM, rules-driven product management can provide many benefits. It can help manufacturers re-use knowledge from previous design efforts to shorten the time and cost required to execute designs. It can also reduce design errors, improve the quality of designs, increase innovation, and preserve the organization's intellectual property.

Knowledge-based approaches to automating design processes have been attempted in the past, but they were limited by difficult interfaces and a lack of clarity surrounding the system of record for rules--are they stored in the CAD drawing, in the PDM system, or somewhere else?

Where you capture rules is as important as how you capture rules. With RPM, modifications can be made at any point in the design cycle. In order to capture knowledge effectively, one must have an acute understanding of the logic behind the particular object being designed.

However, a common problem surrounding current knowledge capture implementations is that "most modern CAD systems do not allow design decision information to be captured in a way that adds meaning--to convert the implicit information and data into explicit knowledge."

Current implementations often save only parametric (geometric dimension) data. They also assume that recording the history of design changes in a particular drawing is the same as capturing knowledge. A design engineer may come about his design through circuitous routes, testing different configurations before coming to a final decision. These design changes should not be captured as "knowledge" and repeated for derivative product designs.

Reaping Rewards

One company that is reaping the benefits of RPM solutions is thermal solutions provider Lytron, whose products include heat exchangers, chillers, and other liquid-cooling components. Lytron needed a rules-based design environment that could easily capture the company's existing and emerging intellectual design property. It also needed an environment that could accelerate the design process by automatically configuring the nearly standard components selected for any given design.

Using RuleStream software, Lytron was able to determine how much manual labor it could save as engineers and sales people worked to meet unique customer requirements for both custom and repetitive order situations. It also determined it could deliver product to manufacturing more quickly.

Some benefits included cutting design time for various products by 20-80 percent. The company was also able to automatically create accurate product drawings faster and easier and reduce potential for error. In addition, the rules-based approach freed engineers to focus on more complex project factors,

Dave Vredenburgh is CEO and president of RuleStream Corp., 401 Edgewater Pl., Ste. 100, Wakefield, MA 01880. He founded the company in 1999 as a pioneer in rules-driven product management. The company can be reached at 866-660-3100.
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Title Annotation:From The Field
Author:Vredenburgh, Dave
Publication:Product Design & Development
Date:May 1, 2005
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