Guest Column | March 3, 2014

Use Of Efficiency Tools In MES And Automation Projects

Janette

By Janette Santana, MES & Automation Engineer, Enterprise System Partners and Kevin Henning, MES engineer and project manager for system integration projects, Enterprise System Partners

In this era of high technology, many traditionally cumbersome and time-consuming project tasks can be managed more effectively if they are identified up front and the right engineering tools are developed and employed. Word and Spreadsheet processors usually include the capability of creating macros or pieces of Visual Basic code to perform an action that might otherwise be extensive, repetitive and/or prone to error. XML language is also a great programming tool to read data from files that might otherwise be difficult to process. For example, by converting a database to an XML file you can query the data and present it to the user in a more understandable and user-friendly way. These tools are currently in use in many projects, but could be usefully deployed in many further instances.

Practical Example – Complex Requirements Matrix

One practical example that will be detailed here is the development of traceability matrices. A Traceability Matrix is created and used to verify that the requirements in a User Requirements Specification (URS) document were met.  Functional Requirements Specification (FRS) and Detail Design Specification (DDS) documents are verified during this task to ensure that they address and meet the requirements stated in the URS. It is also used to verify that the necessary test protocols were developed to validate the requirements. If the project is small enough, generating a traceability matrix is not that cumbersome. On the other hand, the bigger the project the more tedious it is to go through every document. This kind of work is often given to people less involved in the technical aspects of  a project, and as a consequence, less familiar with the details of the project documentation set.

Use Of User Friendly Search Tool

In a recent MES project, the list of requirements was very long and the traceability matrix ended up having hundreds of rows, each with multiple entries on it. In a big project like this, it can be overwhelming to go through dozens of FRSs and DDSs, plus dozens of test protocols to attempt to link specific technical items back to individual requirements – particularly if the person is not very familiar with the technical content of all the documents.   In this case, an engineering tool was created to locate the documents, search through them and provide, in a user friendly table, the document numbers and references that were most likely to be linked to each user requirement, greatly facilitating the task of building the traceability matrix. In this particular case, the tool was developed after work on the traceability matrix had already commenced. After running the tool as a test, it listed document references for some of the requirements that had been missed or overlooked when a person was drafting the matrix. Considering that the matrix had hundreds of entries, the possibility of a person missing a document was considerable.  The documents listed by the tool were rechecked and the matrix was updated accordingly.

Benefits – Job Satisfaction As Well As Efficiency

These tools generally save time, but even if the time saved is negligible, the person going through the task will definitely appreciate their value. Now, making a case in front of managers for taking time to develop these tools is not always easy because they might never hear their subordinates complaining about needing one or experience the monotony of having to perform these tasks. People are usually careful not to complain to their bosses about these tasks because it is considered to be their job to perform them. That is the reason engineering tools are often not considered necessary. For managers and validation personnel concerned about implications, it is important to note that engineering tools do not do the job for the person. The person responsible for the job must still review the output and be the final decision maker. Engineering tools like these should only serve as a guide and to make the job less cumbersome, less time-consuming, and a little bit more enjoyable.

Use Of Macros For Development Of Repetitive Test Protocols

Another practical example in which engineering tools can be used is in the development of protocols. We can often find ourselves having to test multiple instances of the same piece of software. As an example for a simple analysis, we will use the generation of a test protocol to test an Equipment Module and all of its instances. This example requires multiple protocols based on the same protocol template, but with different equipment alias resolutions.

All word processors have built-in search and replace functionality that can be used to replace the alias with the alias resolution one by one. For example, we have 15 aliases in an equipment module that we want to replace for their alias resolution. It takes us 10 seconds to open the built-in Search and Replace tool and type the alias and then the alias resolution, plus another 3-6 seconds for all the aliases to be replaced. If we calculate the time consumed in this task, this means 15 aliases times 10 seconds for a total of 2.5 minutes, plus 45 seconds to 1.5 minutes for the replacement, for a total of approximately 3 to 4 minutes for only one small test case.

Alternatively, this can be easily accomplished by creating a small program or macro that will mimic the Search and Replace functionality, but use entries with a spreadsheet for the alias and alias resolutions. You can easily enter all 15 aliases with their resolution at once and initiating one Multiple Search and Replace, instead of performing a search and replace for each one individually. Table 1 shows a sample format for the spreadsheet in which you would write the aliases in Column A and the aliases resolution in Column B. A Replace All button would be pressed only once and your document will be ready with all the aliases replaced.

Object

Replacement

INLET

VLV-1

OUTLET

VLV-2

DRAIN

VLV-3

BYPASS

VLV-4

Table 1: Example of Aliases replaced by Aliases Resolution in a Word document by using a spreadsheet with multiple Search and Replace functionality programmed

If it takes 10 seconds to type one alias and its alias resolution in the table, this means that it will take 2.5 minutes to type all 15 aliases and aliases resolution and 3 seconds to process the document. We can process the same small test case in 2.55 minutes instead of 3 to 4 minutes. This does not appear to be a large difference until you multiply the time by the number of instances to process and consider the additional effort required by the person developing the protocol as the protocol is larger. Replacing each alias individually also increases the chances of making a mistake or missing one, since you cannot view the entire list at one time. Protocol generation errors are easily introduced during monotonous tasks like searching and replacing in a document. When the person has to search and replace so many aliases, more breaks between protocols are required in order to maintain alertness and prevent mistakes.

Table 2 provides an analysis of how much an engineering tool can save someone when generating a protocol where Equipment Module (EM) Instances need to be tested. It is based on using 10 seconds as the approximate time it takes to type an alias, type its resolution and press the replace button:

EMs

EM Instances

Aliases

Approximate time without tool

Approximate time with tool

Time saved

10

10

15

5.41 hours

4.16 hours

1.25 hours

20

10

15

10 hours

8.33 hours

1.67 hours

Table 2: Example of time saved in different case scenarios

Focus On Value Add Tasks

A simple tool can be the difference between a person that has to go through a long repetitive process charging more hours and delivering at a slower pace and a more productive person delivering results faster. This example is only covering the development of one protocol. When dozens of protocols need to be generated, multiply the time saved by the amount of protocols and it can account for days of work and allow for people to focus on more higher level tasks.

Often tasks like that one which are considered simple can be very time-consuming. Their simplicity makes people believe that no assistance should be needed to perform them. People do not typically perform well when performing mentally repetitive tasks, and it becomes evident that using a computer to assist is a great help. These tools can be developed by anyone with some basic programming knowledge or by software engineers for more complex tools. Engineers should be encouraged to identify these cumbersome tasks and work on a solution for them as part of a time-saving activity. Even for operators passing information from shift to shift, using an engineering tool can offer more visibility about their activities and save some time for the operators starting the next shift.  Every system these days has a user interface developed with convenience in mind. MES and Automation project tasks should not be an exception if it means saving time, maintaining job satisfaction, and avoiding mistakes that are introduced every time a repetitive task is performed.

 

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