Implementing a fully digital drawing workflow from end to end is a desire of many companies. The digital workflow should be divided into two categories: the workflow for drawing creation and the workflow for drawing consumption.
During the creation process, a digital workflow improves collaboration, improves communication between the designers and engineers, ensures data is never lost, and can provide a multi-step role based approval process. This functionality has been implemented by using traditional PDM systems for some time now. Today, new cloud-based solutions also implement these same benefits but remove on-premise boundaries and can provide various increased collaboration services.
No matter how you create the drawing, someone will eventually need to access and use your drawings. Typically, this is someone that is pressed for time, doesn’t typically use technical software and just wants the drawing as quickly and easily as possible. In my view, it is just as important to enable a digital workflow after the drawing is created. When implemented properly, the digital workflow should simplify the process of providing access to your organization as well as for your partners or vendors outside your organization. It should improve the control over who can access the content and it should allow anyone viewing the content to submit feedback.
A PDM or similar software solution is great at what it is intended to do, which is enable the creation of drawings and/or documentation more efficiently. But using it to provide access to everyone outside the engineering and design team is far from ideal. Whether it is packaged as a traditional on premise server solution or as a cloud solution depends on your needs, but regardless PDM solutions are designed for CAD users. Not managers, shop foreman, supervisors, construction workers or outside vendors. They are designed to manage files because the engineer and designers need to edit the files but everyone else does not care about files, they care about the content. Using a quality PDM system is highly desirable for drawing creation, but once the drawing is created what is the best way to implement a digital workflow?
Many companies use a hybrid approach. They use some method, either manual or auto scheduled to create PDFs of each drawing. They then store these PDFs either in their database or on a file system and provide some type of access for viewers. The viewers, which are typically limited to specific people within the organization are then tasked with printing the drawing out when it is needed. Someone or multiple people are then also tasked with sending the PDF to outside vendors.
Many problems exist with the hybrid approach described. First, you must continually make sure the PDFs are updated but yet not updated until the drawings are ready for release. Second, the resulting access point typically results in a windows explorer interface of many files with limited search capabilities. Third, you have no way to receive feedback easily via markups. Fourth, you end up sharing PDFs by email with your vendors and partners, which means that undoubtedly at some point you will forget to send them the latest PDF of the drawing and a critical revision will not be included. Fifth, you have no easy way to include a DXF, STEP or other generic CAD file that specific viewers or vendors might could use. I could go on and on with many more negatives when using this approach but I think you get the idea. All of this will eventually cost you significant time and money.
If you are using SolidWorks or other 3D CAD software, it is likely that you create lots of assemblies. These assemblies can contain hundreds or even thousands of sub-assemblies and parts. When you get ready to use the drawing for the assembly, it is very likely that most of the sub-assemblies and parts contain their own drawing. Currently, the only option for the end user is to use the parts list on the assembly drawing to manually look up each drawing in the assembly. For large assemblies, this can result in hours and hours of wasted time. Thus, a proper post creation digital workflow should also enable a modern handling of these assembly drawings. Instead of having to look up each individual drawing, it should just display all of the drawings for that assembly as a single view. If any drawing within the assembly is modified, then the entire view should just automatically be updated.
This is where Flatter Files, a cloud-based flat ‘file cabinet’ for drawings and documents, comes in. It is not a replacement for your creation process but rather, it is designed to work with whatever creation process you use whether it is a traditional PDM system, a cloud-based file syncing service, or just files organized on your network drive.
So how exactly does Flatter Files enable a post creation digital workflow?
The first is that Flatter Files provides a central searchable access point to your drawings for everyone in your company. You can enable access to your Flatter Files account to an unlimited number of viewers. This means that even if someone only needs access once a year, they can still be given access since there is no additional cost. This greatly improves the digital workflow experience since no one should have to ask where to find a drawing. All of your content is available to everyone via a web application as well as native mobile applications for iPhone, iPad and Android devices.
Annotations on iPad
The second way Flatter Files enables a digital workflow is by including an Uploader application that automates the process of publishing your drawings to Flatter Files. The Uploader app auto generates a PDF and uploads it to Flatter Files whenever the drawing is ready to be released and then keeps it up to date with the latest version as you create revisions. Think of the Uploader app as an automated digital printer. In addition to creating the PDF automatically, it can optionally upload the native files as well as create and upload generic CAD formats such as STEP, IGES, STL and DXF. All of the uploaded content is always organized around the drawing such that a viewer views the drawing and then can easily download or view the associated additional files if they are accessible.
The third major feature that enables a digital workflow is that Flatter Files includes the ability for any of your viewers to easily mark up drawings on their mobile devices. See a mistake in the field or on the shop floor? Just mark up the drawing on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device and the appropriate people within your company will receive an email notification to review the suggested change. This provides an immediate feedback loop so there are no more excuses for mistakes to continue to show up on a drawing.
The last major feature for enabling a more efficient digital workflow is that Flatter Files automatically creates Assembly Views for each of your drawings that contain an assembly model. This means that you can now view the latest drawing for each part or sub-assembly within a single view. Anytime any of the items are modified the entire Assembly View is automatically updated.
As the product designer’s digital toolbox continues to grow on a seemingly weekly basis, Flatter Files looks to be a solid contender for accessing and using drawings as easily as possible.