Engineering change control modules – just for engineering?
All full-function ERP systems have an Engineering Change Control (ECC) module to help with a product design change. Most engineered products experience design change at least once in their lifetime, and for any one of a range of reasons including:
- To improve the marketability of the product
- To facilitate cost reductions
- To correct previous design errors
- To comply with new regulatory requirements
Engineering companies, especially those that manufacture complex products, have long known this to be a process that has to be carefully managed to ensure that ill-thought-out, or unofficial, changes don't find their way into production. But such disciplines are also required in many other industries, perhaps the most obvious of which is food processing.
It's nowadays almost impossible to walk around a supermarket without seeing labels that proclaim, “New recipe”, or “Improved formula”. ECC is useful in any industry where product safety is important. ECC addresses three phases of the change process: approval, execution, and history.
Taking approval first, it is usually necessary for multiple departments to sign-off design changes, and typically that will include:
- Design - to verify that the requested change is possible
- Production - to confirm that they can execute the proposed change
- Inventory control - to identify stocks that might have to be declared obsolete
- Purchasing - to check price and availability for any new materials required
- Costing - to assess the financial implications of the change
- Sales and marketing - to assess the impact of the change on sales
- When a product is manufactured for a specific customer or a small number of customers, it may be necessary to get their approval for the change also.
It is worth mentioning, though, that some companies have differing sign-off requirements for different types of change so, for example, a change purely to make a product easier to manufacture might not need a sales or marketing sign-off if the change is not apparent to the customer, and a change of design of component color might not be of concern to production.
Individual companies, though, need to make their own decisions on this and the system merely has to accommodate their choices. Ideally, when a change request is logged on the system, it will have all the information required for all of the above groups to assess it properly, but the likelihood is that they will need access to a wide range of documents as well, from drawings to specification sheets.
Most systems allow these to be held as 'attachments' that can be accessed directly from the change note, but it is important that the status of such documents at the point that they are assessed is recorded, and that any changes to them after they have been used in an assessment is highlighted.
The system should allow authorized people to sign off their agreement electronically, but also to reject requests or to send them back for clarification or extra information, and any comments that they make should be visible to all other signatories and be held on record permanently.
If and when all signatories agree to the proposed change, it's time to action them in relevant bills of material and manufacturing routings. The changes may be restricted to just one product or maybe a global change (such as, “replace component A with component B on all bills of material”), or maybe something in between.
One obvious danger is that, even when something has been agreed upon and signed off, people simply forget to make all the required changes to the relevant documents on the system. Some ECC systems can help by making these updates automatically when the change record is finalized but this cannot happen until all departments have signed off.
And that raises a serious question, which is, what happens if most departments agree on the change but one does not? The answer is that the system should and must support the company's procedures. If those say that, for example, the CEO can override decisions that line managers can make in this area, then the system must allow CEOs to sign off that change using, of course, their own identities and log-in codes, and not those of their direct reports.
Even after the changes have been approved and actioned, the ECC system has an important role to play. One reason is that, at some point in the future, people will ask why the change happened and who approved it.
These questions are not necessarily accusative because sometimes, many months or even years after, someone will suggest replacing component B with component A and someone will ask, “but didn't we move to component B for a reason?”, and, at that point, change history moves from being nice to have to invaluable, so that companies don't repeat previous mistakes.
And that, perhaps, is the biggest and best advantage of having and using ECC in your system.
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