Intelligent Automation - A Big Winner in Product Engineering

  • November 07, 2019
  • Feature
Intelligent Automation - A Big Winner in Product Engineering
Intelligent Automation - A Big Winner in Product Engineering

By Sandip Shah, Senior Engineering Consultant, Hitech iSolutions

Today’s smart digital customers expect an increasingly high level of customization in an increasingly short delivery window. Product companies are under constant pressure, as “the lot size of one, delivered to the customer’s doorstep in days” is becoming the new standard.

To meet this demand, product companies need to reduce the product life cycle and the cost of their products while enhancing the value of their offerings to retain the market and grow alongside. Intelligent Automation will help these companies and their engineers to beat the competition and make an impact in this highly competitive and evolving digital trend of integrated Cyber – Physical world of manufacturing, called Industry 4.0.


Key Challenges to Implement Intelligent Automation      

What to Automate?

Product engineering processes are complex and involve many stakeholders right from sales and marketing to engineering, manufacturing, and quality. This is necessary to ensure cross‚Äêfunctionality during the path of evolution.  Each function has its own requirements and interdependencies on other functions, having formed its own processes throughout the Product Life Cycle.  So when we consider automation, we need to establish:

  • Which data to be considered, where to locate it and what are the implications?
  • Who owns it and why?
  • What is useful and what is not?
  • Un‚Äêmapped staggered processes across functions
  • What are the repetitive or rule-based processes?


Processes without Documentation

Failure of most IT automation implementation is because of documentation not done adequately. Both, identifying project goals and documenting it, is most important. Proper logging of existing tasks, developing processes and generating workflows are also required to be included into the documentation which are required to be automated. The identification of goals defines accurate measurement of project success. Documentation ensures that the tasks along with processes and workflows to be automated are very well understood by the staff to have successful implementation of any IT automation project.


Systems Working in Silos

For each separate function to perform effectively, individual systems are in place:  sales use CRM, management has ERP and engineering has PLM. Many such systems are not connected and always include other channels of communication such as phone calls, PPTs, e-mails and messages, documents and spreadsheets. For faster decision-making, there is a need to include real-time data communication between humans, machines, products, and functions. As integration is necessary, different systems and platforms throw greater challenge due to their rigidity to adopt different environments.


Adopting Cognitive Automation for Greater Benefits

Even if organizational leaders automate the requisite processes or identity these for automation, embedding cognition is always a major challenge, considering the limited expertise about implementation, benefits, and security concerns.


Finding Difficulties in Free-Flowing Data Through Integrated Processes

Workflows require constant formation and reformation of data, identification of the usefulness of data and formation of the right KPIs to encompass timely decision-making.


Lack of Skilled IT Automation Staff 

In majority, there is always a shortage of skilled automation personnel, who can manage the projects related to automation and creating orchestration platform to shift the human work to machine. Leader must focus to train their existing staff or hire the qualified team to manage the automation program. They can also have consultants to overcome this issue.


Despite knowing that automation significantly helps improve effectiveness of product engineering functions to meet market demand, many industries struggle from where to start, how to lay down the path and move forward.  It would be advisable to start with quick wins from process improvements and move towards automated systems development/deployment and finally become digital. One can follow the 3-step strategy viz.  Automate, Augment, and Amplify.


Removing Bottlenecks and the Use of Workflows in Engineering Processes

Identify the processes that are critical for decision-making. Also create issues concerning data duplication, data integrity, scrap, and rework. This will give a quick start and reduce the process time by 15-30 %.

Some of the tasks include:

  • BOM Structures/Revisions
  • Change Orders (ECR, ECO, ECN)
  • New Part/Item Requests
  • Document Revisions
  • Project Tasks
  • Quality Records (CAR, PAR, NCMR)
  • Training Requirements and Records
  • ERP System Uploads/Updates

During the SolidWorks 2018 World Conference, research at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Lincoln Laboratory cited why it is important to create an engineering workflow to improve processes. Research showed that drawing creation and modification generated about 90% errors. While using workflow, human hours were reduced significantly from 360 (assuming three working weeks earlier) down to only one. On the issue of productivity, to create five hundreds of models and drawing, it required more than 3 engineers and several weeks.

With the use of SolidWorks PDM and CAD systems, a custom plastic packaging firm have used the workflows form product development to manufacturing to shorten their custom designs as little as 2 weeks and are able jump on their global sales.

An elevator company in Europe, has used the SolidWorks PDM and CAD systems with automated workflows and tight revision controls. Benefits that observed are eye catching. The design cycles of almost 40% and reduced design errors, which helps reducing product development cost by 30% and proto development cost by 60%.

With the use of model data to drive downstream documents and processes automatically with the help of SolidWorks PDM, this task now only requires one hour of human intervention and one overnight for running automation.

Influencing Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in Product Engineering  

RPA is yet another emerging technology in product engineering. The use of RPA will help remove paper-based documentation and approval processes. This makes the system more robust with the right data flow and improved decision-making.  Intelligent systems with an efficiency that rivals human abilities will carry out rule-based clerical jobs such as preparing the bill of materials, change order management, work‚Äêorder status updates and others.

Airbus faced a great challenge to speed up its NPD and required collaboration withmultiple stakeholders in-house and globally. To accelerate product development for TRU projects, Airbus used the Dassault Systemes 3DEXPERIENCE platform®, which has integrated their global ecosystems of more than 22 companies and their team of 30 experts globally. This allowed sharing of all models for accelerated testing iterations and engineering, design simplification, performance and material development. All Engineering Bills of Materials were generated in real time for testing and manufacturing shared globally in a common environment. Finally team was able to deliver the project with full functional prototype in little as just 12 weeks rather spending more than a year with conventional design practices.


Automate product design

The engineering team of a Pressure Vessels Manufacturer,Europe for their ETO (Engineered to Order) based offerings, would take from one to two weeks to offer the cost of their product. For designing, it would take from three to four weeks to send the drawings for manufacturing. There was a need to speed up the process of quote and designs.

While working with the Hitech iSolutions engineering team, a product configurator was developed by incorporating more than 60% of the product mix.  The development of the product configurator took around 10 weeks.

The benefits were quite visible. The engineering team drastically reduced the design time to 1 hour from 2-3 weeks and was able to offer the cost for a quote within a few minutes. They were able to reduce 90% of the repeated tasks, which included calculating the designs with Microsoft Excel-based formulas, thereby significantly reducing errors in designs for manufacture. Overall, there was a benefit of 30-50% in the product engineering costs.

Automated product design will make use of APIs wherein customized design macros will design products with more structure and integration at just a click of a button Using CAD customization, product development time is reduced substantially to within the range of 35% to 40%. The success of CAD customization lies in identifying the key dimensional variables of the product and driving those variables using simple API programs. SolidWorks, now has   inbuilt facilities to create workflows and plugins to automate the design tasks that helps engineers to accelerate the product design from hours to minutes. 


CPQ (Configure-Price-Quote) for Systems Integration & Visibility from Sales-Design-Manufacturing

Tools like CPQ (Configure-Price-Quote) allow total integration of PLM/CRM/ERP systems. This is possible with improved virtual realization of products, which can be offered/configured along with precise costing and time to deliver.  Tools like Tacton CPQ and DriveWorks CPQ are capable of configuring the product offerings in a structured way. They are also able to integrate with any CAD system and further integrate with CRM and ERP.

Building Component ManufactureUSA had a greater challenge to expedite their engineering orders, which used to take more than 4 weeks. Besides, they required error minimization in their processes from sales order to design and manufacturing. They had a CTO (Custom to Order) and BTO (Build to Order) based product mix, which had more than 5000 items in terms of hardware and configuration. Major errors existed in paper-based sales order processing to engineering, which in turn ended up in delays, rework and more scrap.

With Hitech iSolutions joining hands, they started gradually automating their paper-based sales orders into the digital feed and developed a rule-based product configurator, which offers 80% of their designs. With automated tools built on DriveWorks and SolidWorks APIs, the benefits are quite visible:

  • Product delivery at doorstep reduced to within 24 hours from several weeks
  • Faster product design life cycle from 7-9 days to few minutes
  • Manufacturing cycle from 2 days to a few hours
  • Reduced defects and improved FTR
  • Overall cost reduction from design to manufacture by >70%


AR/VR for Product Realism

AR/VR has great to offer in the area of improving the efficiency of design and manufacturing for DFx requirements. Magna Steyr, Germany, is into vehicle engineering and contract manufacturing. It faced a challenge involving designing and deploying manufacturing tools and processes for two different variants of car models into a single production line.

By implementing technology from Siemens of DIGITAL TWIN, it significantly reduced the time of development through virtual product manufacturing right from concept, analysis, and validation to production. It was able to deliver the system within extremely stringent timelines. Without any problem, BMW could able to produce two versions of CAR on same production line in a four-week timeline.

The use of AR/VR technology along with CPQ will make the product offering more realistic and virtual product commissioning. To get the best of user experience, IKEA has created an augmented-reality product catalog to enhance the user-experience before customers buy their products.


Empowering AI-Based designs and moving towards Industry 4.0

The use of cognitive knowledge-based designs will empower designers to generate cost-effective designs. SolidWorks 2019 provides intuitive knowledge-based designs with total integration of design, manufacturing and inspection at the click of a button. “Algorithmically generated” design software allows designers to generate designs based on a list of material and performance requirements with the use of Autodesk’s Dreamcatcher.

Having observed greater benefits of small moves towards intelligent automation, there is a need to move a step ahead by concentrating more on technology like Digital Twin, which offers a high level of intelligent automation towards time to market. Gartner says, “Prepare for the Impact of Digital Twins as half of the large industrial companies will be reaping such benefits and consequently enjoying 10 percent greater effectiveness by 2021. 



A change in product engineering processes and the use of advanced technology is essential to survive in a highly competitive market. It is obvious for product manufacturers to accelerate their product offerings need to induct the thread of digitalization in this rapidly changing scenario and meet the demand for mass customization.  Digitalization for product engineering could be monumental and can begin paying off in less than a year. To overcome obvious challenges, strategizing and planning each part of the implementation process & integrating a transformation mindset across the organization will help to set the tone for change.

Intelligent automation in product engineering has great benefits across the value chain starting from customer to sales, design, manufacturing, quality, and logistics. Tools like customized CAD APIs, CPQ and process technologies like RPA have a great potential to offer in terms of product engineering as a step towards intelligent automation for SMEs in a budget cost.

Why should product industries still need to wait to adopt digital automation and die out, while competitors become well-positioned and grow rapidly?

Ride on the digital wave and excel in your journey before it is too late.


About Author:

Sandip Shah is a senior engineering consultant at Hitech iSolutions, an integrated engineering consulting and solutions company working with clients globally to support, digitalize and automate their engineering processes. Sandip brings to the table a rich experience of 20+ years in design and manufacturing and has a proven track record of providing out-of-the-box creative solutions for complex engineering challenges. His expertise lies in leveraging digital technology to give manufacturers a competitive edge.

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