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Fast App: Synergis Software’s Engineering Document Management System Helps Foster-Miller Control Complex Projects

By DE Editors

In the midst of managing a large project for the military and trying to qualify for multiple industry certifications, Foster-Miller Inc., an engineering and technology development firm, turned to Synergis Software for help. The engineering firm now uses Synergis’ Adept engineering document management (EDM) system to manage its documents, review and release processes, collaboration, design histories, standards compliance, and centralized SOP repository.

Synergis Software’s Engineering Document Management System Helps Foster-Miller Gain Greater Control over Complex Projects
Figure 1. During a stringent AS9100 audit, Adept engineering document management helped Foster-Miller quickly achieve certification.

Starting Point
Headquartered in suburban Boston, with additional offices in Washington, DC, and Albany, NY, Foster-Miller was founded in 1956 by three MIT graduates, who believed there was a need for a company that could solve clients’ difficult technical problems through first-class analysis and design. Before implementing Adept, the company had rudimentary, labor-intensive document management processes in place. Unfortunately, its systems did not satisfy the industry quality certifications it sought. Foster-Miller wanted a flexible EDM system that would be part of an individual’s daily activities rather than being an additional task.

“A good process is as invisible as possible, but still delivers significant benefits,” said Andrew Courier, program manager for Foster-Miller. “Our goal was to automate as much as possible, not to hire additional personnel to support new processes. We don’t need a group controlling the baselines or viewing rights, or handing out numbers. Implementing Adept was a very good move for us.”

Currently, Foster-Miller uses 25 copies of Adept with its SolidWorks and AutoCAD software. In addition to Adept’s out-of-the-box capability, the company added two custom extensions from Synergis Software—the Adept Library Signature (ALS), for complex approval routing, and the Automatic Number Generator, which automatically names models, detail drawings, and presentation files, as well as other design files created with software such as Microsoft Word, Excel, Project, and Visio and SolidWorks.

Overcoming Resistance
When Foster-Miller began implementing Adept, one of the first obstacles it encountered was pushback from its staff, who believed EDM would be an extra step in their process. “We had to work at changing the culture and find a way around the resistance to use an institutionalized document management system,” said Courier. “Even after we set policy that Adept must be used on the project, we found that people were creating much of their work outside of Adept and saving copies on their hard drives or somewhere on the network—or they were just using Adept as a final publishing tool.”

Unfortunately, these workarounds promoted wasted effort and mistakes. Too often, someone would end up reviewing an older version of a document, or a document would be lost all together. Foster-Miller’s approach to changing its culture was to make it look as if they were embracing old methods while actually adopting new ones. “We customized the Adept interface to look like the Microsoft Explorer view that our personnel were currently using. The resistance to using an EDM system was greatly reduced because the operators were using an interface that looked like something that they were use to,” said Courier.

Meeting Certification Requirements
It is common for the Foster-Miller team to work on complex and challenging projects that have strict development requirements. “We make anything from food manufacturing equipment to medical devices to aircraft launchers, so it’s important we have a system that is flexible enough to provide process control for all types of projects,” said Courier.

Among its projects are various medical products and an Electro Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS) for the Navy. The advanced level of work required Foster-Miller to fully commit to improving its design processes. So the company embarked on a process-improvement initiative that would enable it to achieve the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) for a Capability Maturity Model level 3 (CMM 3) process rating, the National Quality Assurance USA International Standards Organization (ISO) 9001 certification, and the aerospace version of the ISO quality rating, AS9100.

Once Foster-Miller had Adept up and running, it continued to optimize Adept’s library card/database fields to meet the needs of the CMM3 and AS9100 certification initiatives. The process included adding intelligence to the way it archived documents. “It was pivotal in our efforts to prove we had good control and easy accessibility of our design products,” said Courier.

“We’ve just completed and passed the SEI CMM 3 assessment on our processes,” said Courier. “We relied heavily on Adept to achieve our goals of becoming a CMM level 3 and AS9100 company. If anyone has lived through an SEI CMM assessment, they know that the assessors do not enjoy struggling to find artifacts. Adept is a very useful tool. When an auditor wanted to find any one of our project forms, locations of an SOP, or document approval status or flow, it was just a search away.”

During its AS9100 audit, Foster-Miller opened a screen and performed the audit live, using Adept. Once again, it was able to quickly retrieve and show the auditors any document they requested. “We showed how we store our engineering change orders (ECO) in Adept and how we use Adept’s relationship tool to link the ECOs to their related designs. The result is a complete change history for each part. The auditors were so impressed that in less than 20 minutes they said, ‘Forget about it. You guys are all set.’ Adept definitely helped us achieve certification.”

Workflow Enhances Data Control
The next-generation EMALS project is an ongoing focus of Foster-Miller, and it also has significant documentation requirements. Internally, the company created three levels of formal processes. “It’s very extensive,” said Courier. “Adept allows us to set it up for simple or complex processes.”

On a medical project, Foster-Miller used Adept to link ECOs to the part baseline. “It was important for us to trace what version was going out because we were delivering drawings and documentation quite frequently and we had to make sure our customers had the right version,” said Courier.

For all of its projects, Foster-Miller required a reliable way to route material for review and to validate who reviewed and approved documents. The company uses Adept’s ALS custom extension to perform the final approval routing. Foster-Miller’s ALS approach is to send documents to all reviewers simultaneously so that they are reviewed in parallel rather than in series. The goal is to avoid delaying the review cycle because a document is sitting in someone’s mailbox. The process uses secret passwords to ensure verification in the workflow. If someone rejects a document, Adept requires the person to type in the reason for the rejection, so every step along the way is documented. Once a document is approved, Adept moves it from a work-in-progress library to a secured-release library. “We worked with our Synergis Software account team and created exactly what we wanted. We got a lot of good suggestions, and the ALS has been a big hit,” said Courier.

Beyond using Adept for projects and safeguarding design history, Foster-Miller also uses the system as a library for SOP documentation. Hundreds of SOPs, manuals, training documents, and templates are stored on Adept and are available to company personnel.  “We created a separate tab on the database for our SOPs and an entirely different looking database view for our SOP library, which made it much easier to find these types of documents, ” said Courier.

Secure Collaboration
For every project, Foster-Miller has multiple library tiers: a work-in-progress library, a release library, a management library, and an obsolete library. Each has different user rights, depending on who needs to collaborate on the project. There are special folders for formal program reviews and process improvement (which includes SOPs).

“We use Adept as much more than a drawing vault,” said Courier. Currently, the company is in the requirements definition phase of a large military project. Foster-Miller’s engineers are generating over a hundred performance specifications that require peer reviews, and the company is using Adept to manage the process. “Our process involves several Adept libraries, with different levels of securities and access. For example, we have a work-in-progress library for our projects, so we can maximize our team collaboration while maintaining a design history,” said Courier.

“At Foster-Miller, we are committed to continuous feedback to and from our management in order to constantly improve ourselves,” said Courier. “Adept provides a secure medium in which sensitive documents can be shared between program managers and upper management.”

Eliminating Costly Human Error
Previously, the company’s engineers maintained their document numbers on a spreadsheet. The process was awkward and required many steps to obtain and number a document. It worked most of the time, but occasionally, numbers were overwritten and caused problems.

To prevent such problems, the company had Synergis Software modify Adept’s auto-number generation application so that it would work within the company’s process. “We are extremely happy with the auto-number extension,” said Courier. “Now we simply go into Adept and fill in the required library card fields and walk away with a number. As a result, we have been much more successful in getting people to fill in the library cards. It’s really good right now. People are doing a great job.”

New Processes Increase Accuracy
“We train all of our people to manage the whole lifecycle of the document,” said Courier. “They make a document, create approvals on their own, make a number on their own, say where it goes, and check it in and out. We each take responsibility for our company’s success. Adept makes it easier, and we’re efficient on it.”

Adept has become seamless in Foster-Miller’s process. It doesn’t introduce additional time into the workflow, and fewer people have to manage documents and files. As a result, the company can focus its resources on creating world-class design solutions for its customers. With Adept, Foster-Miller has fewer errors going out of house, and there is less waste.  “We’ve just about eliminated the errors we had before,” said Courier. “In today’s ultra-competitive world, companies can’t afford to be inefficient, and once it’s set up, Adept ensures we are efficient.”

More Info
Autodesk

Foster-Miller Inc.

SolidWorks

Synergis Software

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