As the manufacturing sector looks to get back on its feet following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturing companies are facing a new combination of operational challenges. With many businesses having been forced to lay off staff due to the economic impact of the virus, they must now learn how to drive operational and cost-efficiencies while sustaining productivity with a reduced headcount, all the while ensuring that those employees who are still working are able to do so in the safest possible environment.

These measures are necessary to ensure companies’ longevity and, in some cases, survival. The impact of the downturn will be felt for a long time to come, so whatever improvements can be identified and implemented are urgent priorities.It is therefore essential that team members across the manufacturing organisation are empowered to work with maximum efficiency and autonomy.

And, if we are to look for an upside to the significant negative impact of COVID-19 on the manufacturing sector, perhaps one option could be that companies will be driven to reassess established workflows and find new and better ways of managing essential processes.

The technical documentation process is a case in point. Precise 2D visualisations of 3D products and assemblies are essential throughout the manufacturing organization, to document the manufacturing process itself, to illustrate assembly and installation instructions, to produce sales and marketing materials, to enable great support, and to underpin service and maintenance. And yet the siloed nature of both product data and specialised skill sets can often make this an area of particular inefficiency.

3D CAD models of products created in expensive CAD packages are often the only source of 2D visualisations which might be required by employees on the shop floor who need to create an illustration to document a process, or annotate a document, and by all the downstream teams throughout the organization and ecosystem who need an image in order to communicate a complex object or idea with absolute clarity. But those models are only accessible by a small portion of the workforce who have the skills and software to display them.

Often those specialists - who are expensive thanks to their specialism - will spend a great deal of time creating specific screen shots of models in software designed to do far more complex tasks. Because these software packages are not equipped with sophisticated illustration and annotation capabilities, those screenshots then must be saved out as different file types and ingested into other packages where they can be used according to requirements. Of course, if another image is required the process begins anew. This is a process which often involves two, three, or more people coming together to discuss what is required and ensure the correct output.

In an environment where efficiency is more important than ever, where the workforce is reduced, and where physical distancing has become fundamental to public health, this is a flawed process and a serious bottleneck.

This is really an issue of data democratization. It is about empowering anyone within the organisation who has a need to access and extract value from 3D CAD data in an autonomous way. Training all those employees to use CAD packages, and buying vast numbers of licences to the software, is not an option, for obvious reasons. What is required is a lower-cost, intuitive and flexible solution to interacting with that CAD data. Not only the visual models, of course, but also the metadata which allows for annotation or bill of materials creation, for example.

Giving manufacturing staff the ability to independently access, interact with, and display directly on their own desktop or laptop PCs addresses a seriously sub-optimal process, ensures more expensive talent is appropriately and efficiently deployed, and reduces the need for multiple team members to congregate around a single workstation.

In a post-COVID world, where the spectres of second and subsequent waves are a constant presence, a re-examination of long-established workflows is essential for any manufacturing business. As with any assessment exercise, this will yield some quick and easy wins and some which are more challenging to achieve. Technical documentation is only one part of the process but it has broad relevance across the organization. And it is certainly one of the quickest and easiest inefficiencies to address, leading to time and cost savings which can directly impact the bottom line in this most challenging of climates.