KB Controls is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Read more in our disclaimer
How engineering managers can empower their teams to create more value and reduce costs with systems, standards, and automations
Systematization is the key to OEMs growing their businesses profitably. Using systematization, OEMs can scale their businesses using technology, instead of larger teams and overtime. By scaling with technology, OEMs increase their capacity and their profit margins.
In this article, we’ll explore what systematization is and how engineering managers can introduce systems, standards, and automations to their teams to reduce the effort involved in executing projects and enable their teams to do their best work.
Many OEMs and machine builders are in the business of delivering completely bespoke solutions to their customers.
The client comes to the OEM with a requirement, the OEM sells a bespoke solution in the form of a machine. When the client is happy with the concept, the fulfilment process begins.
This process repeats with every client. Every client gets a custom solution, engineered from scratch.
Because OEMs are so busy with sales and fulfilment, they fail to improve the efficiency of their business. It's a classic case of the cobbler’s kids having no shoes.
Engineering managers fail to create well-defined processes, and engineers waste time figuring out what to do and when to do it.
Engineering managers fail to define deliverables and quality checks, so tasks fall through the cracks, leading to missed deadlines and expensive re-work.
Engineering managers fail to utilize reusable modules to reduce the amount of duplicated work engineers are doing on every project.
By systematizing your processes, you can simplify the execution of projects and create a more consistent result.
Since each project follows a defined process, it’s easier to estimate how long a project will take and to understand if a project is on track or not.
At each stage of the project, it’s clear what each team member should be doing, what their expected outputs are, and what their required inputs are. This helps to increase the efficiency of each member of the team and keeps the project running smoothly.
As you dial in your processes, you can begin to automate repetitive tasks. Automation relieves the team of boring, mundane tasks and increases your capacity to serve more customers with the same team.
Thanks to systematization and automation, you can take on additional projects without asking anyone to do overtime or relying on expensive contractors to meet peak capacity demands.
Over time, the outcome of your projects becomes more consistent and the effort and time involved in realizing projects are reduced.
Thanks to reduced costs, your profit margins grow.
Thanks to the increased quality and reduced lead times, your customers are happy. They start to give you more work and you have the capacity to accept it.
Systematization can take your business to the next level. So, how do OEM engineering managers go about creating systems in their teams?
When you start creating internal systems and processes, it makes sense to focus on the parts of the business where you spend the most time. For OEMs, systematization starts with defining the processes involved in executing projects.
On a high level, you can define the stages of a project. A typical workflow for an OEM may look like this:
Each project part is broken down into small detailed tasks. These tasks have defined inputs and outputs as well as a responsible member of the team. For example, the process for a Controls Engineer in the commissioning stage may look like this:
A granular view of each task is created that shows detailed information about the task. This information includes the steps involved in executing the task, the required training for executing the task, and the other members of the project that are responsible, consulted, or accountable for the task.
Throughout the granular view, links are provided to quickly find more details about roles, deliverables, and inputs.
The end result of defining your processes is a Project Playbook. A Project Playbook defines exactly what has to be done, when it has to be done and how it should be done on a project.
A graduate engineer or a new hire should be able to take this Project Playbook and, after completing an onboarding program, be able to take part in projects and be effective quickly.
Over time, your fulfilment process becomes like a conveyor belt assembly. Everyone is in the right place with the right inputs at the right time. The process of fulfilling projects becomes smooth and predictable.
Once your processes are defined, you can begin to modularize and simplify your machines.
You define reusable modules that can be combined to create a solution for your customer.
An example of a reusable module may be a machine vision machine inspection station.
This module has a pre-defined bill of materials for mechanical and electrical parts, pre-defined installation instructions, a pre-defined software block for the PLC, a pre-defined object for the HMI, and a pre-defined configuration file for the machine vision system.
As you define more standards, you build up a library of reusable components that are applied in projects. Instead of building things up from scratch for every single project, you can use components that you know work well for the application.
Now you can begin to sell solutions based on their value, not on the effort that it takes to realize them. This is a win-win situation — your profit margins go up while you create more value for your customers through increased quality and reduced lead times.
Applying standards also helps to reduce project risk. When you work with standard components, like the machine vision inspection station in the previous example, you know the limits of your capabilities. You know what capacity the module can handle, the availability of the module, and the lifecycle stage of every product that is used in the module. All of this information can be leveraged in the sales proposal to create an accurate representation of how the machine will perform for the end-user.
Once your processes are well-defined, you can begin to automate the repetitive, mundane parts. At this stage, you begin to leverage technology to get your team’s time back and be more efficient.
Typically, you want to automate your processes slowly, starting with very low value add tasks, such as setting up the folder structure for new projects. These are tasks that can be easily automated and no one enjoys doing them anyway.
Over time, you can automate more and more of your processes. As you get confident with automating processes, you can tackle some complicated aspects such as PLC code generation and HMI application generation.
The beauty of automation is that it allows you to do the hard work once, and reap the benefits multiple times. Not only do you benefit from the time-saving aspect of automation, but your clients benefit from increased quality and reduced lead times on projects.
Remember that the best automation starts manually. If a process is not well-defined and dialled in, then it is not a good candidate for automation. All of your automated processes will be the second evolution of a process, where the first evolution was manual.
In this article, I explained how OEM engineering managers can create systems, standards and automations to improve their engineering processes. By creating systems, standards and automations, engineering managers can empower their teams to do their best work in an efficient way.
The best part is that everything I talked about in this article is possible to implement today — with previous clients, we were able to automatically create 80% of the EPlan drawings, PLC software, SCADA software, and test documents for a project using a common project definition.
So how can engineering managers enable their team to execute project efficiently?
It starts with defining and mapping out your processes. What does the perfect project flow look like? How far is your typical project from following that process?
Once your processes are dialled in, you can begin to automate tasks. Start with the low value add tasks and work your way up to more complex tasks.
Finally, analyse your projects to see what modules are being used again and again. Create standards for these modules and apply them in your projects.
PLC Programming from Scratch is designed to teach you everything you need to know to be an effective PLC programmer. Using practical examples, this course teaches you how to program PLCs using the most popular IEC 61131-3 programming languages including Ladder Diagram, Structured Text, and Function Block Diagram in a free development environment.
Part 3 of Software Standardization for OEMs
Part 2 of Software Standardization for OEMs