Improved IT promises to make it possible for collaborating companies to communicate more effectively, says Gerard O’Neill

Innovation is the lifeblood of manufacturing. It is typically engineering-led, but requires the ability to collaborate across numerous other functions and disciplines.

Since at least some of those involved in these disciplines are likely to work for other companies, communicating easily across organisational boundaries and time zones is important. So the ability to define and bring products to market is determined by the effectiveness with which an enterprise can collaborate with suppliers, customers, design agencies, regulators and the other third parties that constitute its increasingly global ‘ecosystem’.

A well-known automotive OEM, for example, recently revealed — to no-one’s surprise — that each of the 25,000 components that make up a popular mid-range model travels an average of 4,800km to reach its factories.

The manufacturer, and others like it around the world, know with some suppliers located at great distances the only way to co-ordinate activities and exchange information is through IT systems. Yet enabling and managing collaboration across the fragmented, heterogenous IT systems that characterise most manufacturing environments can be a daunting challenge that demands skills and expertise in systems security, access, identity management and the optimisation of data flows and handovers.

After burning their fingers over the last decade on complex enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration projects that were rarely delivered either on budget or to the originally agreed schedule, many information officers struggle to see how traditional IT tools and methods — that have proven difficult to apply within the four walls of the enterprise — can be applied across complex and dynamic global ecosystems.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Recent IT advances promise to make collaboration easier and more intuitive. The unified communications (UC) offerings of Microsoft, Cisco and others allow you to extend presence-awareness and other communications tools to third parties.

Together with video conferencing and document sharing they can be integrated into a common environment — which would ultimately be deployed as a virtual collaboraton room (VCR) — where members of the ecosystem can share information, regardless of the application landscape, with those they invite into the room.

In this way an engineer using one application can share information in native form with other engineers who work with different systems and would otherwise have no access to that application. The availability of colleagues in other companies can quickly be determined (using presence technology) and those colleagues can then be seamlessly conferenced in and out of calls as needed. Thus ideas can be tested and concepts adapted on an easy, iterative basis that is not limited by the organisation, or system boundaries of individual ecosystem members.

BT envisages that such collaboration will be built on ubiquitous, standards-based, off-the-shelf technologies. Many organisations already own licences for the software upon which the room is built. All that is needed is the integration expertise to bring them together.

The IT landscape in manufacturing companies usually features a wide variety of application and platform solutions, from CAD and PLM through to instant messaging and web meeting tools. Utility solutions such as email, calendaring, voicemail, phone systems and network storage add to the complexity and it is not unusual to find that these companies ‘own’ many more solutions than are made available to users.

VCRs exist to connect, enhance and use the enterprise’s existing assets by combining existing tools and applications, enabling the user to maximise the value of existing investments while minimising the disruption and cost associated with new solutions.

Vendor and business-specific solutions that would otherwise remain in silos are brought together and made available to the designers and engineers charged with developing new products and bringing them to market — on schedule and within budget.

Gerard O’Neill is marketing manager of BT Global Services