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Merford Cabins took the decision in 2016 to implement a data management system to enable work processes to be improved and speeded up. Requirements for this system included supporting a uniform method of engineering and reducing the time designers were spending on peripheral tasks, such as finding information for work preparation. A discussion about preparation, awareness and lessons learned.
Working comfortably at heights
Merford Cabins is a business unit of Merford made up of 40 members of staff that supplies operator cabs around the world to large industrial customers, such as Heerema Marine Contractors and Tata Steel. David Buschman, General Manager of Merford Cabins, explains the key principles when developing the cabs supplied by the company: ''Over the past fifteen years we have invested in the development of cabs on ergonomic lines to enable the operator of the cab to work comfortably.
Cadac Group was also involved in the process of setting up a link between Vault Pro and our ERP system and in the classification of components in the system
René van Haaren
CAD Manager - Merford Cabins
''It may sound simple, but there's much more to it than first meets the eye. A port crane, for example, may be suspended at a great height, so the lines of sight need to be OK; the operator needs to be able to see what is happening sixty metres below him, without having to twist himself into contortions.
Alongside this, the air quality in the cab needs to be monitored and the inside temperature needs to remain within an acceptable range, even in extremely low or high outside temperatures. Furthermore, excessive noise needs to be kept to a minimum in the cab and any vibrations dampened. Therefore, designing a good operator cab has many aspects to it.''
From standard concepts to full customisations
Eight engineers work on cab development so as to supply products that fulfil the exacting standards that Merford Cabins sets for itself. To this end, they use standard cab concepts that are then used as the basis to supply customer-specific products.
Buschman: ''Merford supplies both standard concepts and cabs that are fully customised. For customisation projects, we use existing concepts wherever possible. However, most customers have a large number of specific wishes and requirements, so in most cases it becomes impossible.''
Their own twist
A combination of the number of customisations Merford Cabins supplies and the low reuse percentage has led to a situation where much of the engineering expertise is held in the heads of employees. The benefit is that each engineer knows their job inside out, but there are disadvantages too, according to Buschman.
''Our engineers always work within the parameters of what the company expects, but would often give it their own twist, with the result that there were as many ways of doing things as there were engineers. This made it difficult to keep track of what was happening and resulted in mistakes, for example when engineers temporarily took over one another's jobs. In addition, a lot of time was being spent on preparation: collating all the relevant information was taking up too much of the engineers' time. It would be much better if that time could be spent on innovation and devising new and better products.''
Organising, managing and tracing design data and documentation processes
With all the points for improvement in mind, a business case was written in which the problem areas were set out, the requirements for a new system were defined and the payback time was calculated. The latter was directly possible since it was apparent right from the start that Merford Cabins would implement the Autodesk Vault Professional data management package.
This package provides support in organising, managing and tracing design data and documentation processes and can be fully integrated with the Autodesk Inventor design program used by Merford Cabins. The choice of Autodesk Vault Professional as a management package was also an obvious one since it is used by other business units at Merford. Finally, Vault Pro was also recommended by Cadac Group, the CAD supplier for Merford Cabins, who advised using this package on the basis of best practice implementations it had carried out in the past.
Creating awareness is a very important element in building acceptance of new software
Taking all this into account, there was ample reason for Merford Cabins to implement Autodesk Vault Pro. To this end, a project team was formed for which the team members volunteered. Two of the members were René van Haaren, CAD manager at Merford, and Michael Bras, mechanical engineer with Merford Cabins. Van Haaren already had experience with Vault Pro, so he understood how important it would be to show the Merford Cabins employees the features of the management package and to explain the need for it. ''Creating awareness is a very important element in building acceptance of new software,'' believes Van Haaren. ''And, because the engineers would have to work in a very different way to the one they were used to, they needed to be fully convinced of the benefits of the system. As we succeeded in making the benefits clear, we were able to get everyone on board.''
Bras adds to his colleague's comments by giving an example of a change made in the work processes. ''Before we worked with Vault Pro, engineers could give a design or a component their own name. The name would contain information about the component so that the relevant file could be quickly found in lists of files. In the new situation, a number is automatically assigned that does not tell you anything about what is in the file. At first glance that might appear to be a step backwards, but the file associations created by the Vault Pro management package mean there is no need whatsoever to include information in the file names. And, because the engineers were able to see this, they did not give it any more thought.''
With all the employees on board, Vault Pro was introduced at Merford Cabins with a major support role played by Cadac Group.
Van Haaren: ''Our key users attended ten days of workshops and training courses run by Cadac Group where they learnt things like how to work with typical Merford Cabins projects in the Vault environment. Cadac Group was also involved in the process of setting up a link between Vault Pro and our ERP system and in the classification of components in the system. This enabled us to come up with a solution that works for our day-to-day practice.''
Involvement of other departments essential
The impact of the implementation can be felt beyond the Engineering department. Other departments, such as Procurement and Finance, are directly or indirectly affected by the changes.
To given an example: data is exported from Vault Pro to the ERP system. This data must fulfil specific parameters. If something is not right in this process, products could be unintentionally kept in stock. Or financial transacting for the entire project could be put at risk. So, all departments need to be involved and informed about the impact of the implementation in order to prevent problems arising.
The implementation of Autodesk Vault Pro has undoubtedly been a success in terms of delivering the functionality that was needed. Nevertheless, General Manager Buschman believes implementing the project was also an excellent learning opportunity and that next time he would do some things differently. ''We gave the go-ahead for the order in 2016 with the intention of having the implementation complete by 2017.
It quickly became clear that that was too ambitious, because it is now July and we are only just ready to start adding our engineering data to the system. The main reason for extending the deadline was that a large number of orders were received during implementation and, for obvious reasons, we didn't want to turn our customers away. In these instances, the engineering work took priority over the implementation so the whole project took longer.''
Full steam ahead with implementation
''Looking back, I think it would have been better to have allocated more hours to the implementation of Vault Pro in the business case by freeing up one or two FTEs for the project, to enable us to bring it to completion quickly. I am saying that with the benefit of hindsight, because at the time it was a difficult decision to take since it would have meant taking two out of eight engineers off their design tasks. But, my advice to others who are at the start of this process would be: it's best to go full steam ahead with the implementation. It makes it tough for a while, but then you can get that part out of the way more quickly and you will start reaping the benefits sooner.''