Moving to interactive digital work instructions for manufacturing

Manufacturing work instructions are pivotally important because they influence (and often dictate) how quickly and successfully manufacturing processes are executed on the shop floor.

The harder it is for workers to achieve absolute clarity on how to carry out key processes, the slower and more error-prone they are likely to be, affecting everything from output, to scrap and rework levels, and even employee motivation and retention.

For many U.S. manufacturing companies, manufacturing work instructions remain well behind the technological curve in terms of their creation, their content, and their consumption.

In this article we will look at the problems with traditional forms of manufacturing documentation, the benefits afforded by transitioning to interactive digital work instructions, and the most important things to consider for manufacturers making that transition.

Why change is needed

The problems associated with traditional hard copy or flat PDF documentation are well understood. Recent research into the U.S. manufacturing sector showed that:

manufacturing documentation statistics
  • 69% of U.S. manufacturers have seen products hit by errors or delays in the past two years caused by inaccurate, unclear, or out of date documentation
  • 70% of manufacturing professionals have seen products affected by errors or delays as a result of late or delayed delivery of documentation
  • 28% of manufacturers still have hard copy instructional documentation in circulation
  • 72% of respondents said their documentation was too text heavy - particularly for a diverse workforce (with younger respondents more likely to identify this as a problem)
  • 73% said technical documentation challenges are getting harder to manage as they grow

Problematic outcomes from documentation shortcomings cited by respondents to the research included delayed product launches or releases, manufacturing errors, wastage, and even delayed or missed sales opportunities.

Demand for visual interactive content

Correspondingly, there is enthusiasm among U.S. manufacturers for changes in the way instructional documentation is constructed and consumed.

  • 80% of respondents said primarily visual documentation was easier to understand
  • 66% said their company would benefit from digital documentation with embedded interactive 3D models
  • 67% said they would benefit from digital documentation that updates automatically as core models change
  • 70% said they would like to be able to track and measure document access and usage (with only 3% saying they already had that capability)

Understanding the context

These insights need to be understood in the context of the wider set of challenges facing U.S. manufacturing today. Data from the latest Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, published by the National Association of Manufacturers, shows that the primary business challenges facing the sector are issues with the supply chain, the cost of raw materials, and the attraction and retention of a quality workforce.

primary manufacturing industry challenges

Against that backdrop errors and delays become even more damaging, and the need to eradicate them all the more urgent. Raw material cost and supply chain disruption make it harder and more expensive to backfill product when process errors cause scrap. Meanwhile new workers – many of whom will be non-native English speakers (over 17 per cent of the US workforce is foreign-born) – need to be trained, quickly and effectively, to work in a way that minimizes errors.

And there are further knock-on issues. When employees make mistakes, and are responsible for errors that negatively impact performance, they can become demotivated and churn out of the business – a damaging outcome given the costs associated with recruiting and retaining them.

Time for change

Academic research has shown that interactive digital work instructions drive faster output and fewer errors.

And yet actually making the shift away from outdated documentation formats to interactive digital content can be daunting. Change is notoriously difficult to kickstart and it can be easy to remain tied to legacy workflows despite the chronic pain they might cause.

It is perhaps even more difficult to contemplate when the research suggests a ‘ripping off the elastoplast’ approach to switching to interactive digital work instructions - making wholesale change in a very short space of time - is more effective than phased transfer.

So how can you make it easy to access the well documented benefits of interactive digital work instructions?

Understand what type of content works best

Digital instructional content is not limited to electronic documents consumed on a screen. Animations derived from 3D models, with audio narration, which can be controlled by the content consumer are particularly effective at illustrating assembly processes.

Embedded, interactive 3D models which provide a virtual product handling experience can also be powerful instructional aids. These types of content are also more aligned with the learnings styles of digital natives who represent the future of the U.S. manufacturing workforce.

Make them easy to create

It's an obvious statement but work instructions have to be created before they can be used. And research shows that over 80% of U.S. manufacturers experience bottlenecks in the creation of important product documentation. Among the top causes of bottlenecks cited by U.S. manufacturers were lack of access to software applications best suited to the task and creators lacking the skills to work directly with 3D models. Moving to interactive digital work instructions will be easier if your content creators have access to a solution that allows for quick and easy creation of animations, visualizations, and other interactive content.

Ensure content is easily updated

Maintaining instructional content and ensuring it remains current is critically important. Almost 60% of those surveyed said their company found it difficult to update documentation as products change. Extending the digital thread from 3D CAD models and visual content through interactive digital work instructions by linking documentation to models and other assets stored on the PLM can allow for automatic updates to documentation as products evolve - particularly important for companies that rapidly iterate on product development.

Integrate with existing platforms

Solutions for creating and consuming interactive digital work instructions can be more effective and impactful if they integrate with manufacturers' existing tech stack.

For example, allowing content creators to directly access assets stored on the PLM through integration that ensures the PLM remains the primary user interface can optimize content creation processes, and reduce creators' dependency on colleagues.

Likewise, if documentation is typically accessed through an MES or document management system, integration for content delivery should be a priority.

At Canvas we believe that you learn best through experience. So experience Canvas Envision yourself and learn more about how you can drive faster and more successful manufacturing processes with the introduction of interactive digital work instructions.

collaborative creativity

Envision is about working together.

You can share the documents you’re working on with colleagues and team members wherever they’re located. They can interact, mark-up, feed-back, clarify, and sign off. Perfect for working in distributed teams, for checking product details with your engineering team and for clearing the finished document with sales and business development teams.

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