Getting down to Net business

The Internet is beginning to prove its worth as a useful communications and information channel for manufacturers, reports Steve McCormack

Not so long ago, the Internet was considered an over-hyped irrelevance to the business world, or at best, a novel communication and advertising medium of limited usefulness. Today, the question facing many manufacturers is not whether to embrace Internet technology, but just how far it is going to revolutionise their approach to IT and the way they do business.

The Internet promises to change the face of the market by enabling simple, cost-effective, interactive communications within the enterprise and between customers, manufacturers and suppliers at every part of the supply chain. By using accessible, proven technology, manufacturers will have the means to improve customer service dramatically, with shorter product development and faster time to market.

Using a simple browser application, it is possible to upload and download files from servers anywhere in the world, regardless of their source or supplier. These might include CAD models; electronic computer-aided design (ECAD) for printed circuits and the like; technical publications; materials requirement planning (MRP); or enterprise resource planning (ERP) data; standard for the exchange of product (Step) compliant data; or information stored in legacy product data management (PDM) systems.

The Internet is rapidly becoming a ubiquitous business communications channel, says Ian MacKenzie, managing director of Cimage Enterprise Systems, the electronic document management systems supplier. This, he believes, reflects the growing need for individuals, teams and corporate partnerships to interact on large, multi-disciplinary projects.

Of course, the Internet lobby has promised these benefits for some time, but the recent coming together of diverse strands of IT technology – including software objects, PDM, Java-type programming languages and the network computer – mean that we are now seeing the birth of practical, secure and usable solutions using Internet technology. Observers believe this will make the long heralded integration of the supply chain – or globally integrated virtual organisation of customers and suppliers – a reality.

It is estimated that 50% of users among large manufacturers (with more than 200 employees) already use the Internet, one third for technical data exchange. At the same time, 33% of small-to-medium sites are doing the same. Yet access in itself does not guarantee a serious use.

Research last year by Computer Associates revealed that, while 70% of IT directors in blue chip companies say they have an Internet strategy, only around 37% have considered its impact on other aspects of corporate IT. In other words, while many firms have a presence on the Internet, few know what they want to do with it. Many use it for little more than e-mail, as a reference source and for advertising through a corporate Internet presence.

The automotive industry pioneered the use of electronic data interchange (EDI) in streamlining the supply chain, reducing costs and making just-in-time manufacture a reality. It is now looking to augment these benefits through using the Internet to transform links internally and with distributors and customers.

Advantages include its simplicity and cheapness compared with, say, a dedicated wide area network (WAN), or traditional EDI system.

`It is an order of magnitude cheaper at least,’ says Maarten van Emmerik, vice-president of product marketing and technology at Bentley Systems, the engineering software supplier. It is also independent of operating systems and uses standards for data exchange of text and graphics which can easily be installed across many different platforms and environments. But possibly the greatest selling point is its ease of use.

`It is easy technology,’ says Phil Harland, managing director of Sherpa UK, a PDM and technology supplier. `It is familiar, simple to use and does not require a great learning curve.’

But it is still widely felt that, while the Internet has the potential to become a significant business tool and business communications channel, it is immature, and widespread use to support business processes in any volume – such as sales, order processing and purchases activity – will take time.

`Many organisations are still wary of the Internet,’ says Martyn Davies, general manger at Caddetc, the data management and translation specialist. `But it is early days; the market is just starting to develop.’

The Internet – a network of computer networks – grew out of a US defence department communications project in the late 1960s. It blossomed into its current commercial free-for-all with the development a few years ago of the World Wide Web, a sophisticated graphical interface which allows visual rather than simply textual communication.

Now it is the global network that links 64 million users and the world’s largest public system for information distribution and exchange. It is an open public network and anyone with a computer, modem and the right software, and who is willing to pay a subscription, can use it.

In recognition of its potential, many major business software developers have released, or are planning to release, versions of their products that provide some degree of Internet support. Mostly this involves the inclusion of a Web browser, such as Netscape Navigator, which provides access to the Internet where information, such as a supplier’s technical manual, can be viewed without having to exit the business application.

Because of the open standards utilised, the user does not have to own the relevant software to view information over the Web. Products such as ModelServer from Bentley offer the option of calling up 3D graphics without the need for the relevant CAD package resident in the user’s machine. Such packages do not offer the ability to manipulate the data, but they do allow the user to red line changes which can be made once the file has been returned to source.

Such capabilities would prove invaluable in multi-site, joint venture or concurrent engineering applications. For every person who creates something, there are, on average, 24 who have to view that data, says van Emmerik, so the potential is vast.

More sophisticated applications, using drag-and-drop facilities, make it possible to import data and create live links between, say, a design file and a supplier’s catalogue. This automatically updates the downloaded information as changes are made by the supplier, keeping the resident data up to date. Similarly, applications can be written to produce a bill of materials, which will retrieve the current prices to give current costings.

The next logical step will see ways in which files and applications can be downloaded from the Internet, manipulated and then returned to the server. At present this requires the user to have access to the necessary software, but more sophisticated products are becoming available which will enable business applications to be run over the Internet itself.

But there are still reservations -about confidentiality and the danger of downloading viruses – holding back many potential users.

One result has been the growth of the intranet – or internal Net -which is a way of benefiting from Net technology while avoiding the perceived problems of the Internet itself.

An intranet is shielded from prying eyes by firewall security software. It uses Internet technology as an extra layer on a company’s internal local area networks and WANs, and the availability of ISDN lines and leased lines means that there are a range of options available for site-to-site communication.

Most Internet providers now insist that their Web-enabled products have adequate security built in. They hope this will convince more companies to extend their intranets to allow access to suppliers and subcontractors. Security is not an issue any more, says van Emmerik: `Using the Net is safer than sending information by fax or post.’

Commentators predict that the growth of intranet solutions will mushroom, with some forecasting that, by 2000, the number of corporate users accessing intranets will outstrip those using the Internet itself.

Not everyone is so convinced. `Six months ago, nobody had heard of intranets. Today, organisations are apparently crying out for them,’ says Gary Lynch, director at consultant, Wick Hill Associates. He points out that some believe it is all hype, created by the large vendors disappointed by the slow uptake of Internet technology within enterprises. According to this view, the vendors are finding a ready audience in IT managers who are constantly looking for new technologies, and who feel that intranets promise to move control from the user back to the IT department.’

Concerns are also expressed about the capacity of the Internet infrastructure to handle the anticipated rise in traffic, despite the huge world-wide investment in system upgrading.

Yet, with the development of offshore manufacture and collaborative engineering, it is increasingly important to ensure that the right information is transferred efficiently and accurately.

Some of the greatest early benefits of Internet technology are being offered to users of CAD systems, who for many years have struggled with proprietary software tools that have introduced insurmountable barriers when it came to sharing data.

Today, technology is emerging that makes collaboration between designers not only possible, but highly efficient. Typically, the individuals involved might be in different locations, even different countries. Getting together during the design process, or later for modifications or problem review meetings, is costly and time consuming.

`The ability of manufacturers and suppliers to share CAD data over the Net is now a reality,’ says Davies.

He points out that this not only makes for more collaborative working and quality of design, but the faster access to data makes for shorter development cycles, more responsiveness to the market and increased competitiveness. `The fact that you can check true-model data using a simple PC with no software licence is a much cheaper option,’ says Harland.

`This technology is ideal for review and design teams working on concurrent engineering projects. When a design team wants to look at the bigger picture, it can pull information from dissimilar systems and assemble data for examination.’

In a scenario in which access to CAD files is greatly increased, there is a danger of the system breaking down if modifications and changes are not logged. This has been recognised and is seen as a major new role for document management and PDM-type systems.

`There has been an explosion in the numbers who can work concurrently in virtual companies,’ says Harland.

`It is therefore essential to establish an audit trail to track who has changed what in the data source. There is also the question of concurrency of usage – you cannot have two people making changes to the same thing at the same time.’

PDM technology provides the best solution to this problem, he believes.

Looking to the future, some browser suppliers, such as Sun Systems and Netscape, predict that the Web browser could, in time, become the single standard interface to access databases and applications throughout the enterprise.

`This would herald a radical change in the way computing is carried out,’ says Lynch, `with applications as well as data being downloaded via the intranet (in the form of Java applets) rather than being resident on the user’s PC or workstation.’

Yet he does not anticipate a rapid move to fully-fledged intranets, with absolutely everything being accessed via a single browser-type interface. `For one thing, investment in non-intranet solutions is too great, and, for another, organisations have become understandably wary of bandwagons,’ he says.