Digital Supply Chains: Part Six – Automating Concept-to-EOL, Incident-to-Resolution


On the theme of automation of major end-to-end process, we look at examples in product–concept-to-EOL (Concept, Design, hand-off to manufacturing, production, EOL, spares management) and in service: incident-to-resolution (Incident reporting, action planning, dispatch, root cause analysis, repair and/or remediation, acceptance, close).


( This article is excerpted from the complimentary report:
Getting Real with Workflow-Enabled Digital Supply Chains
, available for download here. )

In the previous installments of this series, we discussed examples of digitization and automation in the end-to-end process of quote-to-cash and source-to-settle. In this article, we cover examples in concept-to-EOL and incident-to-resolution processes.

If quote-to-cash is the engine powering the company, the products it makes are the fuel that feeds that engine. As product lifecycles get ever shorter, and product varieties get ever more numerous, engineering and manufacturing organizations are challenged to dramatically speed up development and production cycle times. Digitization is critical to meeting these challenges. CAD and PLM systems, with simulation and visualization technologies, are a key part of the digitization puzzle, as is computerized manufacturing. That still leaves lots of manual steps to be automated in the end-to-end process, such as market research and requirements gathering, concept review and approval, samples testing and management, hand-off to manufacturing, launch planning and execution, service procedure development and hand-off to service, marketing content gathering and deployment, and field feedback (failures, performance, usage, etc.), to name a few. Smaller firms may not have a full-blown PLM system, in which case workflow can fill in a number of the typical PLM functions.

Automating New Product Introduction Processes

A well-respected brand leader makes cooking equipment sold through Walmart, Lowe’s, Home Depot, Target, Amazon, and other retailers. When they roll out a new product or revision of an existing product, it goes through a series of steps: The request is reviewed and approved or rejected; industrial engineers send specifications to their factory in China; the factory ships back drawings for approval; once approved, samples are manufactured and sent for testing and review by engineering and quality teams; once samples are approved, a production order is placed. They are moving from manual to workflow-driven processes for many of these steps:

  • New product request— Requests, originating from retailers (via sales reps), R&D, or marketing, can be as simple as a color change, or as complex as a brand-new product. Each request is reviewed by the strategy team, gauging viability and fit within their portfolio. The product strategy group determines feasibility, and marketing sees if it will sell in the market and identifies price targets. Finally, the heads of these departments jointly make a go/no-go decision. They process several hundred of these requests each year. In the past, paper forms were used, routed to each individual’s desk for review. If someone was on vacation, it could sit for weeks unless someone tracked it down. The tracking of requests and their status was done via a spreadsheet. To automate this process, they built a simple e-form that replicates the new product request. This is automatically routed through each department, who adds their information. Initially it is still a serial process, but in the next phase they will let these be done in parallel, as much as possible. With their workflow platform, a graphical flow-chart representation of the process makes it easy to review and improve the process, to see the sequence and potential opportunities for parallelism, and even opportunities to remove steps that might not be needed. It used to take 6-8 weeks to approve a new product. Now the average is 7 days. This is a 10X reduction in new product request evaluation and approval time, with further improvements expected.
  • Concept design, engineering, and quality review—Industrial design creates concept drawings, showing how the new product should look. Engineering reviews the drawings and suggest adjustments as needed. Quality reviews the design to ensure that past issues and mistakes are not repeated. All the drawings, detailed product description, packaging requirements, and any certification requirements are automatically bundled by the workflow platform into a specifications package sent to the factory in China.
  • Factory review and quote—The factory evaluates the spec package and uses the workflow platform to send back a quote for tooling, a costed BOM, and other documentation, encapsulating their understanding of what is to be built, startup costs, and per unit cost.
  • Samples evaluation—Depending on how different the new product is from past products and other factors, a request for samples may be sent to the factory, using an e-form in the workflow. The sample is fabricated and sent back, to be evaluated by engineering, quality, and marketing. Results of the evaluation are also entered in the workflow engine. If needed, there may be multiple iterations of samples before final approval.
  • Production go/no-go decision—All the information to-date is assembled by the workflow engine, to help managers decide on whether to proceed with production, based on the now much better understanding of cost-to-build, unit cost, pricing, and so forth. Marketing and product planning make a recommendation, with input from engineering, quality, and manufacturing. That recommendation goes through a final workflow-driven approval process.
  • Initial product run—Approval to proceed kicks off the planning process for the initial production run. This can involve iterations back and forth between engineering and the factory, identification of what needs to go into the box (done by marketing), initiating the process for getting third-party approvals and certifications (such as UL approval), and sending CAD drawings to manufacturing. Today, these post-approval processes happen manually and are tracked with spreadsheets and an Access database, with a weekly report generated. This approach creates inconsistencies and gaps in that process. They expect to fix this by implementing the post-approval processes with workflow, as they have done with the pre-approval processes.

The biggest expected benefit is compressing the concept-to-production cycle time, with a goal of shaving 20%-40% off of their current 12-18 months timeline. Like most other industries and types of products, this firm’s products are increasingly high tech, with electronics, controls, and connectivity built in. Accelerating the pace of innovation is critical for them. The sooner that they get from concept to production, the sooner they start selling, making revenue, and working on the next generation. That is foundational to remaining competitive and growing their market share.

The importance of service for manufacturers, wholesalers, and retailers, has continually increased for decades. Many manufacturers make little to no margins on the actual products they manufacture and make most of their profit from services. As we move to servitization and an ‘As-a-Service’ economy, the ability to reduce maintenance and repair costs and speed up those processes is critical to firms’ performance and profitability. This requires both improving the reliability of products and being able to quickly and cost-effectively resolve those issues that do arise. For some companies, providing installation, repair, and/or remediation services is their entire business. In any case, automating incident-to-resolution processes is becoming increasingly important for competitiveness in many, if not most firms.

Service processes suitable for workflow-based automation include sensor monitoring/automated collection of information from devices in the field (with threshold trigger alerts and notifications); predictive maintenance based on IoT monitoring; incident reporting and service requesting; incident notification (notifying all stakeholders and service providers involved); incident response planning; work order/request to providers of specific services and materials; commitment confirmation from service providers; sending key information (location and serial number of machine to be fixed, repair to be done, onsite contact, etc.) and complete instructions to service providers in the field; recording of service performed (work done, parts replaced, issues still needing resolution, etc.); customer signoff on service done; and initiation of invoice creation. This is a domain that is rich in opportunities.

Automated Inspection and Requests for Service in Major Metro Transit System

Crews at a major metropolitan transit system regularly inspect the underground rail lines for safety and service issues. Inspection results have traditionally been recorded on paper forms. The transit system operator recently finished conducting a proof-of-concept project that allows the inspectors to fill out an electronic form on their mobile tablet or phone, whenever they see something that needs to be fixed (for example an electric junction box that needs repair). The inspector can also take photos and attach them to the form. They may also scan the asset ID barcode of the equipment requiring service. The handheld device automatically notes the location. The inspector can ‘submit’ the inspection report/service request right there at the inspection site underground, even if they do not have network connectivity at that time and place. The request is queued up on the device and will be automatically posted as soon as the device connects to the network.

The service request is routed to the supervisor. If approved, the workflow platform queries the SAP ERP system to check if there is a service contract for that particular piece of equipment. SAP maintains correlation of asset IDs to service contracts. If that piece of equipment has a service agreement associated with it, then the workflow automatically creates a PO and a work order in SAP. If the inspector already determined which parts are needed, the workflow also sends a query to the team in charge of spare parts to check if they have any in stock. If so, it sends a delivery request to the warehouse for those parts.

If there is no service contract yet for that particular equipment or type of service, then the workflow generates a PR (Purchase Requisition) which goes through an approval process. This process is used to determine which cost center and budget to charge. Once the PR is approved, the PO can be automatically sent to the service provider. In an emergency, they may be able to piggy back on existing PO, provided they know this vendor has the needed parts and capabilities. The PO processing is done within SAP, but all the user interactions and workflow routing is driven by the workflow platform. Potential future expansions of the system could include enabling service providers to enter information about work completed, and approving the work and payment.

Incident Management and Resolution

One company created automated workflows for reporting and managing incidents; from the initial identification of an incident, to driving the tasks and actions needed to handle that type of incident, procurement of outside services (when needed), notification and tracking of service providers and services completed, and resolution and closing of the incident. This includes all kinds of incidents, whether a safety concern (e.g. ice on a walkway), an accident that occurred, a machine in need of repair or maintenance, or a facility needing repair or remediation (e.g. concrete steps are cracked and need repair). The incident reporting app is given to employees company-wide. Now, anyone can easily report an incident on their mobile phone as soon as they see it, providing ‘eyes and ears’ for the company everywhere. This system also demonstrates the company’s diligence in fixing issues.
For example, if an employee spots some asbestos on a duct or pipe or some nasty-looking mold growing in a damp area, they can use a form on their phone to report the location, take a picture, enter other required information, and submit it. Now that incident becomes a case to be managed within a specified timeline. The right people are automatically notified (e.g. facilities manager, safety and compliance manager, EHS engineer, etc.) and someone is assigned to go inspect the incident. Once it is confirmed as a risk, it gets escalated for mitigation. A message is sent to procurement who uses the workflow platform to generate and send out a request for bids to the right service providers, with all the necessary information having been collected and included by the workflow platform. As the service provider performs the repair or mitigation, they report progress using the forms in the system. Every step through to final inspection and closing the issue is driven and recorded by the workflow platform. This provides full visibility and auditability of responses to incidents.

Prior to this, problems either didn’t get reported at all, or were reported by email or voicemail. In either case, those lack the structure to ensure that all the necessary information is included, in the right format, and are subject to delays in response. The use of a workflow platform shortens the time from problem identification to resolution. Speed of resolution is highly valuable for time-critical problems like a safety risk, a machine out of commission, or mold that is spreading.

A ‘half glass empty’ person might look at these examples and notice that none of these companies has completely digitized their end-to-end processes. All of them are a work-in-progress, somewhere on the journey. But these organizations have a vision and are working towards that ideal every day. We see workflow platforms permeating their efforts to become fully digital. Below we explore why workflow plays such a central role in achieving a fully digital supply chain.

In Part Seven of this series, we look at the role of workflow in creating fully digital supply chains.

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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