Why It’s So Difficult to Automate Your ECO/ECR Workflows

They say old habits die hard. For those processes that have been ingrained in organizations over the years, such as engineering change order/engineering change request, this is certainly true. Because these processes are so critical to companies, there is substantial reticence to change how they are completed.

Yet improving the workflow, in terms of velocity, accuracy, timeliness, and distribution can have a substantial impact on an organization, leading to greater profitability, better reputation and customer stickiness. So why does it seem so difficult for companies to automate how they do engineering changes?

The Basic Engineering Change Workflow

There are many variations in how engineering departments execute an engineering change order (ECO) or engineering change request (ECR). (This variation, in itself, is one of the obstacles to automation to be reviewed below.)  Typically, the workflow includes a request from some entity (customer, vendor, regulator, internal engineering, production and others) to make a change to a drawing, specification, maintenance requirement, bill of material, etc. The request often includes instructions on what needs to be done and the assembly, parts, equipment, facilities or systems affected. The workflow then launches a modify and review process that includes reviewers, changers, overseers, approvers and controllers.

The workflow has traditionally been executed using ECO/ECR paperwork, including routers, transferred around the organization, gaining signatures along the way. Paperwork grows as individuals complete their task and the final package returns to Engineering or Document Control. Many of the steps accomplished are assigned on a schedule to ensure the process proceeds per standards, though often these schedules change due to external requirements, especially when it is deemed the workflow needs to be expedited.

Current Challenges

Using paper as the media of transfer and control slows the entire process as drawings, documents, specifications, routers and other pieces of paper are moved from individual to individual and from department to department, and sometimes even from location to location. The justification for much of this is the need for physical signatures or stamps. Though because we have always done it this way it has become normal modus operandi and is comfortable to many. 

Paper also has the disadvantage of not being easily updated, either in terms of redlines, or updated for currency. Too many key players still prefer to “roll out” paper and create ink redlines. Especially in areas like production floors, construction sites or the field, where access to computers has just not been available, the use of paper is still the preferred means of identifying changes or validating changes.

Monitoring, managing and reporting on these paper-based workflows is difficult and not often timely. In the last decade or so, however, computerization of the reporting of completion or approval has become more common place. This certainly has made it easier on managers to gain visibility into progress and even expedite or set schedule milestones. But the process is still bound by the velocity of the movement of paper documents.

Variations in the basic ECO/ECR steps also impacts the speed and accuracy of the overall workflow. Skipping steps, bypassing approvals, overriding decisions, rerouting the sequence of steps, and changes in external variables (e.g., vendor backorders and quality standard changes) yields an ECO/ECR workflow that seems to never be consistent and always requiring flexibility by participants in the chain of tasks.

In addition, there is always corporate culture and the status quo that makes changing how organizations do their ECO/ECR workflow difficult. Engineers and designers tend to be disciplined creatures that feel good about processes that have worked with over time, even though updating may bring benefits to the company.

How Automation Changes the ECO/ECR Workflow

Removing paper from the ECO/ECR process can be done by employing a robust engineering document management solution. Using digital versions of drawings, documents, specifications, routers, etc. the need for paper copies is removed. The chances of using older, non-current versions of documents as well as documents being misplaced during the process is greatly reduced. Digital versions also allow for viewers to zoom in and out quickly for greater resolution and even compare multiple documents side to side.

Many systems also provide for approval tracking or digital/electronic signatures to replace the need for physical signatures. There is a difference between digital and electronic signatures in terms of acceptance by various industrial communities. For most situations a simple digital signature, representing the user has either viewed or approved the document, is all that is needed. Some industries, such as aviation, have stricter stamping requirements whereby extended security and electronic signatures are needed to validate the users’ identification.

Generating notifications, either by email or internal systems, to workflow participants and supervisors can be accomplished rather than manual notifications or having managers track down routers to establish progress. This can include an automated means to ask questions and get answers, or gain resolution of outstanding issues, rather than traditional face-to-face and email conversations or scheduled meetings.

Benefits of Automation

There are many benefits of automating the ECR/ECO workflow. Some are more nuanced then others, but in my opinion the most impactive benefits gained are:

  • Running changes can be clearly indicated (preventing repetitive work going forward)
  • Models and parts that are affected by the change can be identified so the workflow incorporates the effect on other items
  • Eliminates the use of paper routers and the inherent slowness of paper
  • Progress, at any stage, is made more visible to all workflow participants, as well as managers
  • Ensures the most current versions of documents and drawings are being employed
  • Provides easy access to revision histories to permit understanding of the historical changes as well as create an electronic audit trail for review
  • Permits changes to the workflow and associated schedule, with appropriate notifications so the workflow can be expedited, modified to include new information, or just canceled
  • The accuracy of the workflow is improved due to the inclusion of more data (e.g., assembly and parts drawings) and the ability to markup and attach drawings and documents within the process.

Status Quo is Hard

Changing how we do existing workflows is never easy. Some organizational cultures actually create barriers to change. But improving the standard ECR/ECO workflow has numerous benefits while also increasing the velocity and accuracy of a critical process. Everyone has stories about how the error made in the engineering change revision/order process had a significant negative result in the company, from production of incorrect assemblies/parts, incorrect maintenance, wrong information given to customers, etc. Automation of the workflow provides insurance against these negative consequences while enhancing the output of the most important ECR/ECO workflow.