Automating approval routes, removing process bottlenecks and keeping tight control of documents - in short, managing change properly - is expected to cut development cycle times on large projects in half. Annie Gregory explains In the world of CAD/CAM and PDM (product data management), it’s the big electro-mechanical assemblies that tend to hog the headlines. It is understandable since most of the notable early advances were made in aerospace, defence, shipbuilding and automotive developments. Indeed, the growth of complex assemblies and their underpinning design technology has been symbiotic: neither would have got so far without the stimulus of the other. It is, therefore, easy to forget that huge engineering projects don’t necessarily involve complex geometry. Some of the most demanding of today’s batch are large-scale communications projects where the degree of difficulty centres as much on managing the sheer volume of data, the geographical scale and the interaction between design and manufacturing partners as on the ‘form and fit’ of component parts. Also, these are today’s ‘hot projects’: the world’s appetite for new, sophisticated information infrastructures is seemingly inexhaustible. So, when PDM choices have largely been made in the discrete engineering sector, this is a market area increasingly absorbing the attention of large vendors. Recently, one of the toughest scraps in the PDM industry has been for Marconi’s business. Marconi is undoubtedly a plum worth picking. Formed from the break-up of the old GEC-Marconi, it is a global communications and IT company with 49,000 employees world-wide and 22 production facilities. Its activities include developing and supplying communications, data networking equipment and solutions to telecommunications operators and Internet service providers (ISPs). The prize for the winner of the bidding contest was a massive total of some 3,800 seats with, presumably, the prospect of service and add-on revenues for many years to come from a notable customer. In a three-way fight for the business, PTC’s Windchill software saw off both SDRC’s Metaphase and Sherpa. The latter - together with an in-house development - was the incumbent PDM technology. The competitive evaluation came at an interesting time for the two eventual losers, occurring just before SDRC actually bought Sherpa from Inso. Neil Stocker, SDRC’s UK business development manager, suspects that the uncertainty may have cast both Sherpa and its about-to-be parent in a dimmer light. He feels that, had the company been able to provide the details of its now published plan to migrate all old Sherpa users to Metaphase, the outcome might have been different. Nonetheless, Marconi still took the fundamental decision to move from software it understood well to something that is still in a relatively early stage of development. What is more, in so doing it chose to meet head-on all the issues of legacy data that deter many long-term PDM users from changing horses. Why? First, let’s take a look at some of the base-level business needs behind the decision. Despite its historic name, this is a relatively new company. It has recently been on the acquisition trail, buying SMS (a US provider of data centres and IT outsourcing) and Albany Partnership, a leader in wireless telecoms services. Most telecoms industry analysts reckon Marconi is playing for very high stakes. Many countries are involved in overhauling their communications infrastructures and the growth in Internet activity is producing some major commercial opportunities nationally and internationally. The company now has the ability to plan, build and operate substantial networks from its own resources. But, for Marconi, the incumbent systems simply weren’t ‘man enough’ to support ambitions for a global telecoms business, especially as the chosen technology partner had to be equally capable of satisfying both the products and services side of the business. The company is working towards being able to design and build anywhere across its organisation. Equally, the nature of its business demands a level of collaboration with customers, design partners and suppliers that is going to ask a lot of a system on the leading edge of technology. A good old workhorse like Sherpa - highly capable at managing CAD data but starved in its last days of the investment needed to bring it into the Internet age - simply couldn’t compete. On the other hand, PTC and, to be fair, SDRC have poured huge resources into developing flexible Web-centric architectures capable of glueing together ‘virtual’ development and manufacturing teams as business needs dictate. The difference is that Windchill is still seen largely as a very powerful ‘toolkit’ whereas Metaphase, by virtue of its longer run in the marketplace, has a suite of widely used applications. Second, the project environment of the services side of the business imposes some special demands of its own. This area of the business has been involved in some major infrastructure programmes like the Jubilee Line Extension, the Hong Kong Lantau and Airport Railway and, currently, the West Coast Main Line (WCML) railway project. And it’s this high profile project that has been chosen by Marconi for its Windchill pilot. The modernisation of the 401-mile route from London to Glasgow by Railtrack is an enormous undertaking costing £5.8 billion. As well as upgrading the track, a new transmission-based signalling system will be installed. Marconi Services is a partner of the joint project team (JPT) of Railtrack and Alstom, working to provide the communications element of the signalling infrastructure. WCML is the forerunner for a new system which may be adopted on other major routes. Known as the Train Protection and Warning System, it uses the existing colour light signals but augments them with an automatic override system in the train cab which makes an emergency brake application if a train passes a red signal. Nine hundred signals along the route are being fitted with this system. It was the experience of previous major projects that convinced Marconi Services that PDM had a vital part to play in successfully completing this one. It had worked on both the Jubilee and Hong Kong programmes without any PDM-type tools to support it. And according to John Cooper, design engineering manager for Marconi Services it meant that “there were a lot of costs we weren’t able to recover. Timescales also extended several months longer than they should have done, adding to the cost.” The primary reason was that the team lacked the tight document and change management that would have enabled it to roll up the price of modifications. With hindsight, Windchill would have allowed the team to trace reasons for changes occurring and to give warning of likely costs before making a decision. “It’s quite difficult for us to fully appraise the impact without a tool to link all the aspects of the change.” The team is currently concentrating on getting fundamental project processes under control. Although it uses Microstation CAD, Cooper says that the most-used design tool is Microsoft’s Word, which is used to generate the numerous project specifications. Nonetheless, any major project eventually attracts a huge volume of CAD drawings associated with the design criteria. The Hong Kong programme produced more than 10,000 CAD drawings, all of which needed to go for redlining and sign off. “One of our major costs is the distribution of data, checking everyone has done their part, and getting the as-builts back. This is where workflow is now coming into its own. You can set robots to say this task will be timed out in two days. It will flag it up on the system and alert the people you are expecting to respond.” Cooper reckons that the facility to automate approval routes, remove process bottlenecks and keep tight control of documents under Windchill will, by itself, cut change cycle times in half. Work is underway to integrate Windchill more fully with both Microstation and the Artemis project management tool. Marconi Services’ plans, however, go way beyond this. If all goes well, some time next year it will be widening the use of Windchill to in-house and design partners, sub-contractors and suppliers. “The collaborative part is the fundamental difference between our old and our new way of using PDM,” says Cooper. He believes that the ability for people outside the company to have access to project data via their browser, without needing any other specific tools will make a major difference to the quality of the service this division is able to offer. There are even plans eventually to use Windchill to manage video and voice input as well as documents, allowing the delivery of designs that combine textual and graphical information with audio-visual material to ensure consistency of build, and therefore quality, anywhere in the world. “We regard this kind of technology as a business development tool,” says Cooper. Marconi Services is currently talking to the design authority of the pilot project, JPT, about the level of involvement it would like with the system. There are implications, however, for future projects. “It is something that we see, sitting in the middle between the design authority and the subcontractors: we could be in a position to provide a higher level service to the customer,” he explains. “There is no reason why - since Windchill gives us the capability - we can’t use this system to manage an entire project. We can demonstrate that we can capture events and reasons for change and show how that impacts the process. It will give more openness and visibility to our customer. Quite often, the problem on large-scale projects is not the fact that things are changing but that people are not aware of all the implications of what’s going on.” This story serves as a good illustration of two general points. First, today’s PDM choices can depend more on the systems’ capability to ‘pull together’ project partners than upon inherent design management capabilities. Second, that innovative PDM technology is now seen as a prime factor in a company’s market agility and potential for profitable growth. Any company inclined to jump on a bandwagon should, however, hurry slowly. The cost of making tools like this ‘fit’ your own organisation’s mode of working can be steep in terms of both effort and on-going cost. If the pilots are successful, Marconi plans to roll out Windchill across the rest of its business. The product business pilot has, however, been delayed for several months: the level of complexity Marconi was looking to put into a pilot to give it real meaning has reputedly surprised PTC. It has consequently underestimated the development time necessary to get it up and running. Marconi is also evaluating a Windchill development called Info Engine that provides a portal into the legacy data residing in its old PDM vaults. And in the meantime, SDRC’s maintenance and services agreement for the Sherpa system has been renewed. It seems that it’s not easy to walk away from an established and complex implementation - however old - that involved some 5000 users. After all, it represents a goodly chunk of your company’s product and process history and embodies years of knowledge and experience. On the other hand, a company can’t preserve its past at the expense of its future. Big strides forward take a lot of vision and planning … and some faith and luck besides.