Working solutions

Collaboration is the buzzword of the moment in the worlds of enterprise IT and e-business. But the commercial imperative makes it more than just another piece of jargon.

With many engineering and manufacturing functions now either spread across the globe or outsourced from companies completely, there is a real need to find new ways to link these hugely complex processes into a single business entity.

However, even though many of the necessary technical solutions fore-enabled collaborative engineering are available now, it is still early days for many companies.

Enterprise-wide collaborative product lifecycle management systems such as IBM and Dassault Systeme’s Enovia have mainly so far only been deployed by major automotive, aerospace, shipbuilding and industrial machinery companies.

IBM/Dassault currently provides PLM systems to 13 leading aerospace companies, 18 out of 24 main automotive OEMs and nine of the 11 Formula 1 racing teams. Now there is growing pressure on suppliers further down the line to gear themselves up for collaborative engineering and commerce.

‘Supplier enablement is a major challenge for large and small companies alike,’ says Nigel Montgomery, European e-business research director at AMR Research. In a recent survey of 200 companies across the UK, France and Germany, AMR discovered that the readiness of suppliers was the biggest obstacle toe-business adoption.

The key to overcoming this is the internet, which in theory has the power to allow even the smallest participants in the supply chain to interact with the rest of it using just a standard PC and a web browser.

But while the internet makes things simple in theory, the old obstacle of integration between differing systems remains a formidable challenge.

Many companies complain about the cost and difficulty of integrating with the wide variety of back-end systems in use today.

They can all see the potential benefits of offering visibility to participants along the chain, and to outsourced sub-contractors. But integration of an effective system can cost four times as much as the software itself, according to AMR.

Montgomery says this has to be overcome if companies are ultimately to benefit from the emerging technologies. ‘Event management is a critical part of any collaborative supply chain,’ he says.

But the ambition of collaborative technology extends far wider than knowing what the next supplier up the chain is doing. It holds out the promise of e-tools and methodologies that will support the entire lifecycle of a company’s products, from design and development through manufacture to maintenance and eventual disposal. The objective is to integrate a company’s product development processes with other enterprise functions such as customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning. But again, the obstacle is integration.

Developing an effective PLM system is a major challenge due to the lack of connection between many design and production departments within companies, let alone through online links to key suppliers. Montgomery says: ‘Customers are requiring more engineered-to-order products where design becomes a critical part of supply chain velocity.’

As companies begin to tackle these issues in earnest, Montgomery claims that PLM and supply chain management products will be two of the strongest growth areas in enterprise software during 2002.

Growth areas

Over the longer term, AMR Research predicts that the licences revenue for PLM products will rise from $362m in 1999 to $8bn in 2005 in the manufacturing sector alone.

The potential size of this emerging market has enthused systems vendors large and small to focus on developing tools which enable collaboration across enterprises and beyond to partners and suppliers.

German vendor SAP, one of the biggest names in enterprise software, now has a raft of products in the area.

SAP business consultant Graham Conlon says: ‘The driving force for collaboration is to add value along the whole of the product lifecycle.’ But he admits the potential of the technologies will vary from industry to industry, and even from product to product.

In some sectors, such as aerospace, automotive and fast moving consumer goods, the biggest value can be gained during the early product definition phase by increasing speed to market and innovation.

Conlon says: ‘A collaborative environment can respond to customer requirements more quickly, especially in complex engineering projects where there is a repeated process of approval such as aerospace design.’

In industries such as paper and steel, optimising asset maintenance is the priority, and companies will gear collaborative efforts in this direction.

SAP is now offering a number of products for collaborative engineering within its mySAP.com PLM suite.

The mySAP Supply Chain Management can handle joint forecasting across the supply chain, and is already in use in the automotive, aerospace and defence industries. Formula 1 team Sauber Petronas uses mySAP.com PLM to integrate CAD documents and engineering data into all its processes, from the design of race cars to track tests.

The drive towards collaboration is also spawning a host of specialised applications. cFolders is a new SAP program which allows partners to share structured files of engineering data via the internet. It offers visualisation and red-lining techniques for mark-ups, document management, multiple views and versioning.

Much of the most significant innovation in the use of the web to help engineers collaborate is coming from the design community.

The ability to view and modify complex 2D and 3D designs via the internet has enormous potential to allow design teams to work together, even if they are on different continents. The major players in design and product development software are all attempting to make this a reality.

Simon Booker, UK sales manager for Solidworks says: ‘Companies want to be able to exploit the 3D database everywhere in the enterprise, and outside it with tooling and fabrication sub-contractors, partners and customers.’

Solidworks’ eDrawings 2, which features facilities for analysis and mark-up, is being added to other collaboration tools including 3D Net Meeting and 3D Instant Website.Fellow CAD provider Autodesk is poised to unveil its new Streamline program, a secure web-hosted collaboration tool for viewing live 2D and 3D data. This is a follow-up to its NetMeeting product, which already has a significant user base among SMEs for sharing CAD drawings online.

Manufacturers are increasingly interested in bringing those outside the core design loop into contact with the process, and allowing them to play a part in it where appropriate.

Delcam, for example, has developed a new e-collaboration tool for task management called PS-Team. This is a simple e-mail based route for communicating within a company or along a supply chain, which aims to help functions such as toolmaking have an input.

Online collaboration

Delcam marketing manager Peter Dickin says: ‘Most toolmakers complain about the lack of collaboration with their counterparts, many of whom fail to take account of processing issues when developing new designs.’

Design and development software providers are attempting to encourage online collaboration through low-cost or free products and services.

PTC recently introduced a free service for Pro/Engineer users called Pro/Collaborate, allowing companies to create virtual web-based projects with different access levels. More than 1,000 organisations are using the service to share Pro/Engineer models and documents. Even those without the base Pro/Engineer software can use the free tool Product-View to gain access to the native design.

All these initiatives are pushing back the boundaries of how engineers, designers and other key players in the manufacturing process can interact.

Collaborative technology is still in a steep development curve. As software gets more sophisticated and data exchange technologies such as broadband become more readily available, we could see a genuine revolution in the way we work together.