Going paperless. What a vision, right? Some ten years ago, the concept of taking product development completely electronic seemed like some far off and unobtainable goal. But fast forward to today and it doesn’t seem quite so far out of reach.

The State of Paperless: More Feasible Than Ever?

Going paperless. What a vision, right? Some ten years ago, the concept of taking product development completely electronic seemed like some far off and unobtainable goal. But fast forward to today and it doesn’t seem quite so far out of reach. I thought it’d be interesting to take a look at going paperless in development and manufacturing to see just how feasible it is now.

Paperless Development

So, what exactly does it mean to go take development paperless? In short, it basically means executing development processes and sign-offs automatically and electronically instead of using manual routing with hardcopy forms.

Why would someone want to do such a thing? The advantage is in basing development decisions on accurate information. In a paper-based environment, a change to a deliverable instantly renders any hardcopy copies incorrect. Only you might not know who has those hardcopy versions. From there, making decisions based on incorrect information generates costly errors downstream.

So, given all that, what would you need to take development paperless?

  • First, the forms and information upon which the development process runs would have to be in some electronic format. This could be as simple as an electronic file or as complex as a form in PLM.
  • Second, there has to be some procedure or process to get those electronic forms and information in front of the right people. The enabler here could range from email to an automated workflow in PLM.
  • Third, there must be some means to let people author or otherwise participate in the process or sign-off. Lots of options here too as people could use applications or a web browser.

Paperless Manufacturing

Shifting gears, what does it mean to take manufacturing paperless? Basically, this means that engineering hands over electronic deliverables instead of hardcopy ones at design release.

What’s the advantage here? It’s actually very similar to the paper-based development scenario described earlier. Any change to a design renders its hardcopy deliverables incorrect. Only in this case, manufacturing is ordering raw materials, manufacturing products and shipping to customers based off that incorrect information.

So in the case of paperless manufacturing, what do you need to go paperless?

  • The engineering (or documentation) organization needs some means to author their deliverables in an electronic format.
  • Once that is in place, manufacturing needs access to those electronic deliverables. This could be as simple as a shared drive or as complex as a PLM or PDM system.
  • And finally, manufacturing needs some means to view and consume the information in electronic deliverables. This traditionally has been computers hooked up to the network on the shop floor.

Where are We Today?

In my experience, it’s been split.

Taking development paperless has proceeded fairly successfully. Many organizations are routing electronic documents around via email. A number of other organizations have adopted PLM and are using workflows to route and capture electronic signatures.

Taking manufacturing paperless is a different story. There was a wave of early adopters that dropped computers on the shop floor, not exactly a electronics safe environment, and tried to get operators to use screens as a means to consume engineering information. I haven’t seen a lot of organizations be successful with that, whether it was the technology or cultural push back.

What’s Changed Since Then?

Going paperless means something different now than it did then. Now, it has a ton of green implications. There’s a cultural and corporate push in that direction. But in addition to that, there’s been a couple of technology advances that make going paperless far more feasible.

  1. First, internal networks have gone wireless. There’s no need for computers on the shop floor to be connected via ethernet cable. This means any mobile device can access electronic deliverables.
  2. Second, multi-touch tablets have dramatically lowered the ease-of-use barrier for shop floor operators.

What Else Is Needed?

  • We need more PLM client apps on tablets specifically to enable participation in workflows and electronic sign-offs.
  • We need more 3D model and drawing reader apps on tablets to enable consumption of engineering deliverables on the shop floor.


Going paperless has always been a good vision. But ten years ago, going paperless in manufacturing was a little ahead of its time. The problem was actually consuming the engineering deliverable on the shop floor. The movement towards green as well as wireless connectivity and multi-touch tablets make the effort of going paperless far more feasible.

Your turn to weigh in. Has your organization gone paperless? Was it an easy transition? What enabling technology did your organization use? Sound off and let us know what you think.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

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