Resource Management

Improving Quality and Efficiency

Manufacturers can gain a measurable advantage by implementing software tools to automate the ballooning and specification process.

February 1, 2013

As we enter 2013, ceramic manufacturers are more focused than ever on finding ways to improve their business. From implementing new processes and adapting to new materials to major investments in new equipment, manufacturers across the supply chain must drive improvements that translate to bottom-line impact.

Speed-to-market and quality stand out as areas with great potential for several reasons. First, accelerating the product development lifecycle translates to faster

Jump to:
Implementing automation
Ease of access/deployment
Key capabilities
Company experience/vision
Assessing ROI

internal cycles, improved productivity and lower costs. Improving the accuracy and quality of specifications, as well as production processes, also offers direct savings in end-of-line quality control, scrap, rework and—worst of all—defects that escape into the supply chain.

Implementing Automation

Today, more manufacturers across an increasing variety of industries are gaining a measurable advantage by implementing software tools to automate the creation of specification and production documents. Benefits include faster design-to-production cycles, increased accuracy of specifications, enhanced configuration management, increased human resource productivity, and improved quality.

These software systems provide manufacturers with a range of options, from large, enterprise-wide solution suites that may encompass a wide range of tools to single-workstation software that can automate specific tasks. Several factors need to be considered to better understand the choices and tradeoffs.


Software should offer a wide breadth of solutions for 2- and 3-D models, and integrate with the most popular CAD programs (see Figure 1). This will give users the broadest range of use and ensure uniform use for all products.

Ease of Access and Deployment

The cost and complexity of installing, using, and supporting the software are key factors. Some products require compatibility with existing computers and systems, professional IT support for installation, and ongoing update downloads.

Other services now offer on-demand solutions that can be accessed online with security and authentication. These “cloud” solutions provide easier and faster implementation and use, and can lower costs.

Key Capabilities

The most powerful solutions should have the ability to import from any CMM machine and be able to handle the easiest to the most complex drawings and models (e.g., thousands of characteristics). Powerful optical character recognition (OCR) is also important to ensure a high and consistent degree of accuracy when picking up dimensions and details from drawings. The best solutions offer “teachable” OCR that can be optimized to accurately account for the differences in the engineering fonts used by various CAD systems.

Another highly valuable function is the ability to compare versions of drawings to automatically identify and track changes (see Figure 2). Contrasting colors (e.g., green/red) can aid users in visualizing design changes and—most importantly—ensuring that all downstream specification documents stay up to date.

Company Experience/Vision

The best-in-class solutions offer the flexibility for a cross-industry solution. While some products offer industry-specific solutions (e.g., aerospace or automotive), the best choice will be software solutions that are applicable across industry verticals and across quality and specification formats, such as PPAP or AS9102.

Manufacturers interested in gaining improvements in this area will want to understand their company’s experience, vision and product roadmap. Some products may offer a range of functions but are based on older, first-generation legacy software that was developed for a narrow market application. The best choice is usually the company that listens to the requirements and will truly partner with the manufacturer to ensure the installation and use are smooth and highly productive.

Assessing ROI

The return on investment for automating the ballooning and specification process is an important consideration. The fully loaded cost should include not only the acquisition cost of the software, but also the other costs directly and indirectly related to fully implementing and using the software. These include IT costs to install and support desktop and server-based software solutions. In particular, if a company is using older computers and a variety of operating systems, these costs may increase.

In addition, it is important to consider the extent of compatibility with existing documents and files, such as CAD systems, PDFs, or both. This will help ensure that

In assessing ROI, savings directly attributable to labor should be taken into account. Today’s software offerings can provide time savings of 50% or more.

the software does not present limitations to its full and regular use.

In assessing ROI, savings directly attributable to labor should be taken into account. Today’s software offerings can provide time savings of 50% or more.

“To create inspection sheets, a single four- or five-sheet drawing would require several pages of Excel file to do manually, and would take anywhere from hours to up to a day to complete,” said Mike McKee, an engineering technician who uses the automated software. McKee’s company was able to reduce the process to a five-minute task and dramatically improve quality by “taking human error out of the equation.”

“It used to take me about two hours to balloon a drawing and another two to create an Excel spreadsheet,” said another software user. “I can now do an equivalent project in at least half the time, if not better.”

In 2013, ceramic manufacturers should remember that improving business-critical processes can drive immediate and measurable gains in productivity and margins. At the same time, increasing speed-to-market and quality can provide a sustainable competitive advantage.

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