Bill of Materials Engineering Challenges in the Era of Digital Transformation

In the old days of “over the wall engineering,” all engineers had to do was throw drawings over the wall to manufacturing. That’s it. Nothing to worry about. Production planners and manufacturing folks would figure out how to make a product close to what designers were dreaming, sketching, and designing.

This process is dead in most companies I of know today. Companies are changing current boundaries of product development, manufacturing, and support to become connected with data elements everywhere, intertwined into one single decision management framework fueled by data.

Modern Bill of Materials management and data structures represent a significant level of challenges to engineers.

The Bill of Materials is the lifeblood for these processes. No longer is it an old fashion Part List in a drawing, rather, it’s semantically connected information about product and all related parts. If you missed my previous blog, catch up here: BOM 101 for Engineers. I covered a few basic Bill of Materials topics meant as a refresher for engineers and designers.  

Modern Bill of Materials management and data structures represent a significant level of challenges to engineers. Manufacturing is undergoing a transformation from a traditional business with large factories to a distributed network of makers and service providers. Innovation is moving from large factories and shops to companies like Local Motors and FirstBuild by GE. Distributed architecture enabled by cloud technologies combined with memory-centric storage have spawned new types of data management paradigms and architecture. Distributed data storage, real-time data sharing, collaboration, and networks are at the center of this paradigm and architecture shift. So, before I get into the actual challenges, let me first address what I see causing them. I see two mutually related causes:

Digital Transformation in Manufacturing

What does digital transformation mean for manufacturing and more specifically for Bill of Materials? Well, let’s first acknowledge that distributed teams, data, and networks are the new reality for manufacturing environments and initiatives they create. Unfortunately, current PDM/PLM solutions are database centric. Even when servers are deployed in the cloud, the approach is still “company-centric.” Unlike a database-centric approach, a network-centric approach is what best matches the new manufacturing reality. Everything, including the Bill of Materials, catalogs, and data models need to be shareable and distributed with the ability to connect and work with teams distributed worldwide in real time. What’s more, connecting data together is the biggest value proposition a network-centric approach offers engineers working on their product.

Let’s connect two dots together. You need data for analytics. By having access to data in a Bill of Materials, you can glean from catalogs and their connections intelligence which can be translated into manufacturing business advantage. For example, what part to buy, what contractor to work with, what supplier to use, where are the risks, what delays are likely, where are there unexpected cost, etc. All these questions can be addressed by gathering data in a global Bill of Material and catalog data network.

Bill of Materials in the Age of Digital Transformation

I’m sure you’ve heard this expression: Data is the new oil. It reminds us the new manufacturing paradigm I mentioned above will rely on the ability of new classes of engineering and manufacturing software to translate data into business advantage. Software tools now require real-time collaboration and network data management systems to address the requirements of engineers, manufacturing, and supply chain.

At the same time, the transformation of manufacturing introduces many new challenges in how companies manage their Bill of Materials. In the past, having a facility and/or an established manufacturing shop was the most fundamental requirement for manufacturing success. Not any more. Today, you don’t need to have a single large manufacturing facility. You can manufacture products “remotely” by managing a network of  the suppliers and contractors. At the same time, engineers and others working in a distributed manufacturing environment face challenges with how Bill of Materials can be managed across multiple islands of a manufacturing network while ensuring quality, cost, and readiness of product at the delivery time.

This brings me to what I see as the top three engineering challenges in our era of digital transformation:

Challenge #1: Ensuring Product Manufacturability

One of the biggest challenges facing an engineer is having a manufacturable Bill of Materials and keeping it current with the product development lifecycle. The Bill of Materials, initially exported or extracted from a CAD system, is a good start, but not something you can manufacture from, at least not immediately. Insuring that all the part numbers are in place is vitally important. It’s imperative engineers have a means to share a Bill of Materials among a distributed group of people with the ability to validate if all aspects of the product definition are accounted for. Real-time collaboration with contractors and suppliers are an invaluable tool to manage a team of users working across different locations to keep everyone on the same page, i.e., Bill of Materials.

Challenge #2: Working with Multidisciplinary BOMs

The days when a Bill of Materials, or BOMs, was mostly made up of just mechanical parts or items are long gone. Today, most products consist of both mechanical and electrical/electro mechanical parts. This means multidisciplinary Bill of Materials are the key way of insuring products won’t miss anything critical to their development and production. Electronic, software, and so on all need to be considered together to get the right product users demand and can ultimately be manufactured as intended.

Combining and stitching together pieces of hardware, Bill of  Materials, and information about parts is a non-negotiable requirement engineers need to address. Having a centralized Bill of Materials repository or a global storage to manage all your Bill of Materials is how I’d recommend this challenge be addressed.

Challenge #3: Designing to Manufacturing Workflows

The following three design to manufacturing workflows will impact your Bill of Materials in distributed environments: (1) Global traceability and ability to audit is mandatory for most manufacturing companies. Tracking all changes in the Bill of Materials from the moment it was created is crucial for the integrity of any workflow. Therefore, all changes should be accumulated along with a history of these changes and available at anytime. (2) Managing part catalogs and inventories is a key process manufacturing companies require as part of their workflows. Whereas part catalogs allow you to support the complete information about standard hardware (and any other parts used in the product) successfully keeping them connected to the right Bill of Materials is where the rubber meets the road. (3) Last but not least, the design to order workflow is a really big deal, especially for companies that can’t afford ERP systems. Creating order Bill of Materials for production batches in such cases require tools that are both affordable and tuned for distributed manufacturing networks.

New manufacturing means new tools. From that standpoint, manufacturing companies and engineers need to re-think the way old fashion Bill of Materials are moving from locally saved Excel spreadsheets to cloud-based services able to realize the full potential of digital transformation in manufacturing.

I’d like to conclude this post with the idea that building manufacturing networks in practice means having the ability to connect engineers, manufacturing companies, contractors and suppliers together. And give them the necessary tools to collaborate and manage their Bill of Materials from initial design to production orders.  The new manufacturing revolution presents challenges that require tools to help manufacturing companies simplify processes and leverage the Internet, and the global connectivity it enables, to optimize the way engineers design and teams perform production planning.

I hope this post provided you with ways to think about BOM management for engineers. Please let me know what you think and other suggestions for Bill of Materials and manufacturing topics you’d like to learn more about.

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