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A paperless state of affairs

05 December 2019

The idea of ‘going paperless’ is not a new one; offices, businesses, hospitals, shops and most other organisations you can think of have made strides towards digitalisation and away from paper documentation. But by and large, industry has been slow to follow. Now though, many have also pledged to go paperless, but they face the daunting challenge of finding new and efficient systems to replace the traditional ones.

For many factories, the creation, exchange and storage of paper documents on the shop floor results in an abundance of work for manufacturing personnel and administrative staff alike. It typically starts with the release of an order which is then passed on to several employees who issue customer order documents, print routing sheets, write up the process documentation, ensure the proper revisions are included with the job packet and finally, release the shop order to the floor.

During the next stage, manufacturing personnel follow the status of the order, update the appropriate documents with time spent on the order and quantities completed on the order. At the last stage, they report to the person who handles work scheduling, telling them what the expected finish dates are for the products or the project in hand. That’s a lot of work and unfortunately, when a mistake finds its way into documentation, it escalates through every single area of manufacturing as the document and its descendants make their way around the shop floor. In short, mistakes are costly, tricky to catch and even trickier to correct. 

Many of these problems can be alleviated by going paperless and opting for end-to-end digital solutions. Keeping crucial data on pieces of paper may seem easier to begin with, but although the data might be (almost!) correct to start with, it almost certainly will not be updated in real time and hence by the time the product or project is delivered it is almost certain to contain numerous inaccuracies. This is an enormous and all-to-frequent problem for maintenance engineers who need rapid access to reliable and up to date information so that they can tackle problems quickly and minimise downtime. This can be aided by Cloud solutions such as EPLAN’s Store Share View. Based on Microsoft Azure, EPLANStore Share View is a service that brings EPLAN Projects and data to the cloud. Users can employ this data to enable scenarios for collaboration and set the foundation for future cloud-to-cloud connections.

But simply replacing paper files with Word documents and scans of your paper order is not enough. Real-time editing of documents is crucial, as only live, accurate, connected data gives manufacturers the tools they require for deep analysis. Fortunately, the best CAE (computer aided engineering) systems can issue interactive paperless work instructions in the form of smart Adobe Acrobat (.pdf) documents that support feedback via comments. What’s more, for those who are on the go, the paperless documents can be accessed on handheld devices such as tablets, so they can go about their job untethered to a PC. 

Further benefits are that quality and regulatory audits can be done via a digital terminal and via a single system, with revision control and document management visible to all those concerned. These audits can even be done remotely, and in appropriate circumstances this reduces costs not only for the manufacturer but also for the customer.

But going paperless is not just for administrative or maintenance activities; schematic and wiring diagrams also benefit from digitalisation. Even today many engineers still use printed schematics to wire a panel. Unfortunately, if something does change within the project, the printed drawing probably won’t be updated to reflect this. Once again, a paperless solution – such as EPLAN Smart Wiring – provides the answer, allowing manufacturing personnel to see the most up-to-date drawings on a tablet. 

Such a system will allow the design engineers to jump in with an emergency change or a process update as soon as it becomes apparent that its needed. This will be done digitally, simply and seamlessly, with the proper documentation generated automatically and the correct recording procedures enforced – all without the need for chasing legacy documents, which can lead to costly delays. 

Projects based on digitally generated data can be sent to end clients for them to comment and provide feedback on via the smart .pdf documents. This approach makes the process of updating and gaining feedback much clearer and quicker. This is also a safer way of exchanging information, as there is no chance of someone leaving it on the train home or misplacing it around the factory. And, when the project is finished, all of the relevant information can easily be linked into the end user’s SCADA systems and preventative maintenance systems.

Another important benefit of going paperless in manufacturing environments is the time saving for personnel who would previously have needed to produce and maintain documents like standard practice manuals, preventative maintenance manuals, user manuals and work instructions, since these tasks can now be automated and managed centrally rather than being disbursed all over the shop floor.

Ultimately, not relying on physical documentation can lead to greater productivity, lower costs and enhanced quality. Paperless systems allow employees to spend their time doing what they are good at – designing, testing and manufacturing products – rather than searching though mountains of paperwork. 

Finally, paperless systems in factories can shorten delivery timelines. This in turn helps increase customer satisfaction and give manufacturers the competitive edge in addition to the cost savings and waste reduction. And if these reasons aren’t compelling enough, just think of the ability to make changes as and when required without stalling the manufacturing process one bit!

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Kuka Robotics UK Ltd