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Robotics and Spreadsheets: A Dangerous Combination

As it turns out, replacing humans is no simple task—just ask anyone in the robotics field. Robots designed to do relatively simple tasks like taking inventory in a supermarket are incredibly complex, involving thousands or tens of thousands of electrical and mechanical parts, as well as software components.

In addition to complexity and volume, many parts for robots rely on custom designs that cannot be sourced as off-the-shelf parts. These typically include printed circuit board assemblies (PCBAs), custom sub-assemblies, and many fabricated parts.

Early in the new product development (NPD) process, specifications are sent for price estimates to multiple vendors before selecting one. Each change must be communicated to that vendor, and all revisions must be tracked to ensure the right version is being produced and meets requirements. Imagine that process multiplied out thousands of times for all parts involved in a robotic product, and you begin to understand how difficult it is to ensure vendors are producing the right parts for a quality product.

The incorporation of sensor-based Internet of Things (IoT) devices to robotics further increases complexity by adding a software layer that collects data and communicates it to the user or a central database. These devices have sophisticated software with added security and privacy, alongside electronics and supporting hardware.

Many parts, many spreadsheet columns

One of the biggest hurdles companies face is moving from the design phase to a production environment. It’s one thing to put together a brilliant design or prototype and make it work once, and quite another to get that product into production, meet cost targets, and not have quality or safety issues derail you—and to do it all before the competition rolls their product off the line.

This is especially true for robotics manufacturers because of the complexity and number of parts that must work together. Keeping track of each part’s design specifications, vendor assignment, design revisions, and status is a serious task. Unfortunately, parts tracking usually begins on a spreadsheet or other homegrown system. Although certainly adequate at the early concept stage, companies that try to advance to the production stage using these tools quickly realize they’re in no way up to the task.

First, a product comprised of thousands of components likely relies on dozens of supply chain partners, and some small suppliers may not have sophisticated systems. The ability to clearly communicate and collaborate with each vendor is essential to avoid rework and other manufacturing issues. Without a single system to store the current product design, it’s difficult for suppliers to keep track of the latest design and changes. Failure to deliver the right revision of a part can stall production and be a make-or-break situation for products that must be first to market to gain advantage.

Second, tracking the manufacturing history of every part and assembly is essential to troubleshooting. With high tech electronics and robotics products comprised of thousands of electrical, mechanical, and software parts, finding the specific part causing the final product to malfunction is a difficult task, made nearly impossible without a reliable product lifecycle management (PLM) system that tracks the design history in context with quality issues.

Third, safety concerns are front and center when creating, say, a robot that will be used in close proximity to consumers. Malfunctioning electronics could cause serious injury to nearby shoppers, so ensuring the robot is designed, tested, and assembled correctly requires everyone from engineering to operations to the supply chain to work in unison around the latest, correct product design.

Move to the cloud—and don’t wait too long

In our experience, as soon as products with complex supply chains, such as service and other types of robots, begin transitioning from engineering into the production phase, reliance on spreadsheets, manual tools, or antiquated on-premises PLM systems becomes untenable. These solutions create silos of information that make it difficult to communicate in real time with internal and external partners.

Manufacturers concerned with accelerating the new product development and introduction (NPDI) process with complex supply chains need a single cloud-based solution to keep everyone on the same page. Collaboration becomes as easy as logging into any browser to review the latest designs, drawings, and quality issues. These solutions connect all key stakeholders throughout the product lifecycle to meet today’s tight NPDI deadlines.

One final note: don’t wait until the last moment to set up a cloud-based PLM solution. Rather, begin the process with enough leeway in the schedule to ensure adequate implementation and user training, as well as a chance to test the system before relying on it to manage your product-release process.

Michael Keer is founder and CEO of Product Realization Group, a Silicon Valley based firm specializing in electronic hardware product development and project management. PRG partners with industry leaders and a consortium of companies to help hardware companies get their products to market quickly and cost-effectively.