Work instruction software: A buyer's guide

Choosing the right vendor for software is no easy matter. Commercial websites boast about features you’ve never heard of or thought about (or worse: barely understand). How do you know which work instruction software makes the most sense for you? To help you make a choice, we will outline 5 criteria you should use to rank your software vendors.                         

1. Ease of use

Work instruction software shouldn’t be hard to use. Both creators and executors need to be able to work with the software with a minimum of training, regardless of education level. Complex, poorly designed interfaces are definitely a thing from the past.

Usability should be your number one priority. There are two reasons why this is so important for work instruction software: (1) The software will be used while your operators and technicians are actually doing something else (assembling, inspecting, installing …). This is unique compared to most other software; (2) Operators and technicians have less experience with software than your desk workers. Visual noise and hard-to-understand menus will be a huge turn-off and a major obstacle in a full factory roll-out. Work instruction software should help, not frustrate your deskless workers.

Ask yourself the following questions when evaluating this criterium:

On the creation side:

- How hard is it to create a work instruction?

- Does the software rely on drag & drop functionality to create work instructions?

- Can the user easily copy and paste content?

Use flowcharts to create digital work instructions

On the execution side: 

- How easy is it to find and open a work instruction?

- How easy is it to proceed through the work instruction and finish it?

- How easy is it to make mistakes when executing an instruction?

Work instruction software

2. Available features

Features should never be underestimated. Your highly usable platform will not go very far without meaningful features. Work instruction platforms tend to cater to specific industries or use cases and your desired features depend on them as well. Yet, some functionalities are appreciated regardless of industry or use case. These include, but are certainly not limited to:

Version management: Can we make changes to an existing procedure, without losing historical versions? Can we go back to historical versions of a procedure?

Execution permissions: Can we give a specific user the permission to execute a specific instruction? Can we create groups and give them permissions to execute a procedure?

Conditional branching: Can the user be routed to different tasks based on the user’s input?

Support of multimedia: Can we embed images, videos, PDFs and third-party URLs?

Ability to add extra information on the spot: Can the user add pictures or give remarks during the execution?

Data collection: Which data does the software capture automatically (location, task time …) and which data can it potentially capture?

Escalation management: What can the user do when he encounters an issue? Can one of his colleagues be notified to solve the problem?

3. Supported devices

Within an industrial company there are many departments that will benefit from digital work instructions: assembly, quality control, process control, (preventative) maintenance … The way they execute work instructions is vastly different. Your quality department might prefer clunky tablets, while assembly needs to work hands-free on smart glasses or touchscreens. When you’re assessing software, keep in mind that different use cases require different devices. If you’re looking for a tool to implement across the whole plant, it’s best to purchase device-agnostic software.

4. Integration with third-party software packages

Software platforms are no longer isolated islands. You expect software to communicate with other software systems. When a work instruction is completed, you’ll probably need to report it in your ERP, MES or maintenance system. Manually typing over digital data would be a waste of time. With an integration you can automatically send data back and forth between two systems. Your work instruction software will only hit full speed and realize its full potential when it can integrate with other packages.

Questions to ask yourself:

- Does the software have an integration API?

- Which endpoints can be called? Can you create planned items through the API? Can you send entire work instructions directly to the API?

- Can data be automatically pushed to your other software systems? Or will you have to make calls?

5. Scalability

When deploying work instruction software, you’ll probably start small. You’ll select one line or one work station to test the software and slowly roll out to lines, work stations and eventually other departments in the following months and years. When you’re evaluating the software, you shouldn’t be thinking about how you’ll work with it tomorrow, but how you’ll use it in a year. Scalability relates both to software architecture and company characteristics.

Software architecture:

- Will you be able to keep an overview when you’re running hundreds of work instructions per day?

- Can you create multiple departments for your users?

- How easy is it to extract the data and create meaningful reports?

Software vendor characteristics: 

- Does the software company have the experience and bandwidth to support you in a full roll-out?

- Which customers work with the software today? How intensively do they use the software?

- Has the company been backed financially?