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Teal Electronics Online Documentation System
Article published in Midrange ERP, September 1999. 
A version of this article also appeared in Assembly, August 1999.

Author: Randy Redding, Vice President of Engineering at Teal Electronics Corp. in San Diego
Reprinted with permission of Midrange ERP and Assembly.

Teal Electronics Corporation, a subsidiary of SL Industries Inc., has successfully implemented an online documentation system that allows creation of highly graphical documents--including annotated photographs and drawings and short videos--that can be delivered electronically to the shop floor in seconds.  Quality online documentation helps the company get into production faster and virtually eliminates errors.  The new system makes it possible for Teal to staff its engineering and design group with 15 percent fewer people than conventional approaches would require.

Teal designs, tests and builds custom power conditioning systems for OEMs that produce embedded computer systems used to accomplish specific tasks.  The company's main target markets include semiconductor production equipment, medical imaging equipment, digital graphics and telecommunications.  Unlike most competitors, which focus on providing off-the-shelf products, Teal provides electrical engineering and manufacturing services that address the unique needs of its customers.  The company prides itself on its ability to offer custom power engineering services with quick turnaround time.  In 1995, Teal earned its ISO 9000 Certification, demonstrating its dedication and commitment to quality. 

Mass customization
Teal has made mass customization a reality when it comes to designing and building power subsystems.   But the company's willingness to design and build specialized systems for each customer application presents a challenge to its design and documentation department.   One challenge is to provide production employees, who often switch from building one product to another several times during the week, with complete and easily understood instructions.  Another challenge is dealing with frequent customer changes.   Management must ensure that workers have access to the latest documentation, and that they are not able to inadvertently obtain outdated versions.

In the past, the company produced work instructions using Microsoft Word documents illustrated mostly with AutoCAD drawings.  It took considerable time to produce the documents, and each person produced documents according to his own taste.   Once the work instructions were complete, they were printed and used to update various binders located around the facility.  Some of the workers knew English only as a second language and had difficulty deciphering the text-based instructions.   Production workers sometimes complained that the 2D drawings were difficult to understand or even ambiguous.  Distributing the documents took time.  In some cases, binders got lost and could not be updated.  Occasionally, parts were produced to old specifications because the binders had not been updated in time.

To overcome these problems, Teal engineers developed an entirely new approach to creating work instructions, and it has become both the envy of many of its competitors and a key marketing tool.  The new system is based on the philosophy that manufacturing operations can be described much more clearly and easily with pictures than with words.   The system is based on a document authoring package, called TechEdit, and a viewing program, called HyperView, both developed specifically for work instructions by TechView Corp.  TechEdit software uses digital color photographs, manufacturing drawings, flow charts and short video segments as the basis of the work instructions.  Words are used only to enhance the graphics and to communicate concepts that cannot be conveyed in pictures.  With the new software, a sequence of pictures is used to communicate precisely how to perform an assembly operation regardless of the worker's reading ability.

Teal engineers designed templates with software that speeds up work instructions by making their creation largely a process of filling in the blanks.   Additional time savings have been achieved by replacing technical illustrations with digital photographs that can be produced in minutes.  The software makes it easy to include descriptive text with the photos.  Labels can be added easily with lines in contrasting colors pointing to specific areas of the photo.  Whiteout boxes can be used to print text on top of photos.  Steps can be bulleted with numbers or descriptive icons dragged and dropped from a library.  Different text colors and styles can easily be set up to different functions.

Time savings
The new software has dramatically reduced the amount of time required to produce manufacturing documentation.   Management estimates that at least two additional people would have to be added to the current 12-person engineering and design staff if the company were to go back to the old method of producing work instructions.  This reduction in the amount of time required to produce manufacturing documents paid for the cost of the software, as well as associated digital camera and video recorders, in a matter of a few months.  In addition, management estimates that documentation errors have been reduced by about 40 percent compared to the old approach.

Besides providing online viewing from the shop floor, the viewing program makes it possible to easily link the work instructions to supporting documentation that can be located anywhere on the company's network.  All of the documents relating to a particular product, such as CAD drawings, schematics and bill of materials, are linked together so that they appear to be part of the same folder with the work instructions.  This saves a tremendous amount of time on the manufacturing floor by eliminating the need to search through file cabinets or computer directories for supporting documentation needed to answer a question.  The fact that all documents grouped in the folder are originals rather than copies avoids the possibility of using an out-of-date version.

Streamlining distribution
The new system greatly streamlines distribution of new documentation.  All the designer has to do is drag the work instruction from the directory where it was produced into the production subdirectory.  This takes only a few seconds.  The documentation is immediately available to everyone in the plant.  The possibility of parts being built to the previous set of specifications is eliminated.  The system includes password security that gives the shop floor access to documents on a read-only basis and prevents unauthorized changes.  The new system also eliminates the time previously required to maintain and update binders.

Shop floor workers say they can do their jobs better because they have better instructions.  The graphical work instructions are far more descriptive and easier to understand than the previous text-based documents, especially for employees with weak reading skills or language challenges.  The fact that workers have instantaneous access to all supporting documents encourages them to seek out more information when they aren't sure.

Teal has achieved significant improvements in quality with the new documentation system and other initiatives that are a part of the company's continuous improvement program.  Teal's entire business model is based on being fast, flexible and repeatable in meeting its customers' needs.  This wouldn't be possible unless the company was delivering complete and understandable work instructions to its production workers on a timely basis.