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Unified Communications in the Manufacturing Sector - .PDF file.

BT Global Services outlines the benefits of deploying a unified communications solution to accelerate business processes by enabling more efficient collaboration.

The lowering of trade barriers in recent years has led to profound changes in business processes.

Manufacturing companies have pioneered many of these changes, embracing leaner manufacturing techniques and off shoring operations to emerging markets in order to take advantage of low costs and local opportunities.

The fierce competition unleashed, in turn, by companies indigenous to these emerging markets has led western manufacturers to further streamline their business processes, accelerate the speed of innovation and step up their efforts to outsource entire business functions to specialist third parties – who themselves further subcontract tasks to other specialists.

Efficient communication has become vital to the smooth functioning of this increasingly complex manufacturing environment.

Failure to access information when needed can cause business processes to grind to a standstill.

Decisions based on erroneous information can reverse in an instant the gains and achievements of the past.

The efficiency with which a manufacturer collaborates – often over vast distances – with suppliers, customers and other business partners increasingly defines its competitive edge.

To address these requirements, manufacturers employ an array of specialised applications, including computer-aided design (CAD), enterprise resource planning (ERP), manufacturing execution systems (MES), supplier relationship management (SRM) and product lifecycle management (PLM), which are accessible via a diverse range of communications devices.

The infrastructures that support these systems have become similarly complex, frequently hindering collaboration rather than enabling it.

The sentiment that ‘manufacturing succeeds despite IT rather than because of it’ comes as no surprise to those in the industry.

A new generation of collaboration technologies known as unified communications looks set to change this.

Loosely used to describe the integration of disparate systems, devices, media and applications, unified communications promises to change the nature of collaboration – both structured and unstructured – in manufacturing environments.

Unstructured communications will become easier.

Presence-awareness technologies will tell us, before placing a call, whether the person we wish to contact is available.

If not, we might wait to call later, or send an instant message or email.

If presence reveals that person to be online and not in a meeting, we might start with an instant message to ask if that person can take a call.

When the other party receives the message, they simply click a button (on whatever device they received the message) and connect to the call.

Once connected, a video call is just a click away and applications-sharing requires just another click.

If it becomes necessary to involve a third party – and if presence shows that person to be available – we simply click to connect them to the conference.

The calls can be easily recorded, archived in knowledge management systems and made searchable for reuse.

A single inbox for voice, email, fax and video will make communications easier to manage and act upon, enabling faster response times and eliminating the need for today’s practice of leaving multiple ‘call me back’ messages on different devices in order to contact an individual.

Of equal importance in systems-oriented manufacturing environments, structured communications will also become easier.

The increasing trend towards unified communications applications allows users to collaborate more efficiently by integrating audio, video and other unstructured communications media into the application itself.

Users can use presence, click-to-call and other features of unified communications to easily convene audio or video conferences – both with users and non-users – to share data or discuss a design concept without leaving the application itself.

Reducing product development cycles and bringing products to market faster is a key objective for most manufacturers.

Faster and better product development stands to accelerate cash flows and enhance competitive differentiation and the research and development (RandD) process is usually regarded as critical.

This process is considered critical because it is in this stage of a product’s lifecycle that the majority of its costs are locked down, irreversibly.

Fixing a design flaw after the product has been launched is a very costly prospect for most manufacturers and one fraught with legal implications.

The imperative to get product design right the first time is high.

Misunderstandings in RandD have a disproportionate impact on cost, and efficient communications is more important than at any other point in the product’s lifecycle.

Most research and development projects are engineering led, but involve collaboration across a wide range of functions and disciplines.

In some cases, the functions required to work together – such as design and engineering teams – will be closely aligned and share the same applications so communications are relatively easy.

Other cases will require collaboration between groups that rarely work together (such as legal and engineering, or packaging and field support), have little understanding of each other’s disciplines and don’t share common applications.

The absence of structured systems for the exchange of information between such teams leads to a reliance on unstructured communications, typically email or audio conferencing.

The limitations of these individual media, the lack of familiarity with each other’s disciplines and the absence of regular working relationships between such teams can lead to a heightened likelihood of misunderstandings and errors in communications.

Unified communications can mitigate this risk by enhancing traditional media such as phone and email with video, instant messaging and other visual and written media, thus minimising the risk of ambiguity and misunderstanding associated with any individual medium.

Structured communications benefit too.

Applications enabled with unified communications features allow users to share data directly with non-users, thus eliminating the risk of error associated with the often used alternative of forcing the user to take data from one application and manually enter it into another that can be more easily shared.

Materials costs are a major expense for manufacturers and the sourcing – or procurement – function represents a powerful cost control lever.

The goal of sourcing teams is to secure materials at the best possible terms.

Their ability to do this is contingent upon their negotiating skills and the timeliness and accuracy of the orders they place.

Negotiations conducted in rich media environments – such as video conferencing – allow teams to assess situations and explore possibilities with suppliers in ways that would not be practical in voice, email and other single medium communications.

The means by which sourcing places orders with suppliers depends on the circumstances surrounding the order.

If agreed lead times can be observed, then the order will usually be placed directly on the supplier’s order processing system, without the need to resort to unstructured communications channels.

If the agreed lead times cannot be observed – if an exception arises – an agreement will have to be negotiated.

Complex exceptions involving late-breaking requests for supplies in quantities or configurations that the supplier cannot easily meet often require intense negotiations that might involve multiple tiers of suppliers spread over many time zones.

Unified communications provides a rich environment for exploring these complex and dynamic supply issues, increasing the likelihood that they can be successfully and quickly resolved.

Strategic sourcing has emerged as a popular strategy, enabling manufacturers to concentrate larger orders over a reduced supplier base in return for better terms and conditions.

Those suppliers selected are treated as strategic rather than transactional partners and their impact on operations is enormous.

It is increasingly common for strategic sourcing partners to provide value-added functions beyond the supply of materials.

Typically, they provide inventory management, but also product design, parts assembly and support.

Successfully integrating such suppliers into complex, global operations is dependent on the efficient exchange of information and rich communications environments – such as those provided by unified communication technologies – minimise the risk of interruptions or inefficiencies in information flows.

The production plan is often said to represent the beating heart of manufacturing.

In almost constant change, it seeks to maximise the balance between demand and capacity by taking work orders form ERP and allocating resources against them.

The plan is typically frozen at a fixed point – often weekly or monthly – and then released for production.

The production plan specifies what to build, where, when, with what and when the finished products will be ready to ship.

The environment against which production planning occurs is highly dynamic and the tools used must be flexible enough to accommodate a wide range of potential problems, from raw material constraints and supplier de-commits to product recalls and the last-minute arrival of unexpected orders.

Whether embedded into planning applications or used to enhance unstructured communications, unified communications makes the planning process more agile, enabling planners to rapidly communicate changes in schedules to those responsible for production.

Video is becoming a valuable tool in factory floor operations and can be used to achieve efficiencies in many ways.

Video surveillance of production processes, already a standard feature in many manufacturing environments, when integrated into a unified communications environment, enables quality assurance teams to use live and recorded video footage when seeking to establish the root causes of quality defects.

It is also useful when preparing for new products and first production runs, allowing designers and plant managers to comprehend constraints early in product design, thus avoiding the cost of extended setup times for tools and machinery that might otherwise be necessary.

By the same token, unified communications also enables production facilities to design and procure the requisite manufacturing systems while the products themselves are being designed.

The need to comply with a growing body of regulations has made quality management an integral part of operations throughout the value chain.

Quality has become a multidimensional concept, measured in degrees of variance from specific tolerances that might relate to physical dimensions, taste, sound, smell, texture and a host of other attributes.

It is tracked continuously so that processes can be corrected before defective parts are produced.

Manufacturers generally aim to bring quality to six sigma levels – less than four defective parts per million – which means that failure is rare and difficult to predict.

Root-cause diagnosis is often difficult because there is rarely a single system that can be analysed for data to pinpoint the source of a problem.

Structured systems are therefore often less useful than unstructured communications systems and tools for problem resolution.

Where quality problems do arise, they often result from a combination of events – each usually executed to within its allowed tolerance – that accumulate to produce failure at a later point in the process.

Resolution demands a team approach, with those disciplines and functions involved upstream of the failure point required to jointly review test data and work together to determine the cause.

With each event in the production process correctly executed, the root cause will rarely be obvious and the hypothesis that ultimately tests positive and identifies the source of the problem will probably not have been an obvious one.

Video conferencing, instant messaging and other unified communications features offer an ideal platform for quickly bringing together experts from different disciplines in an environment that facilitates brainstorming and other creative approaches to problem solving.

Warehousing represents the last stage in the manufacturing process before products enter distribution channels.

Inefficiencies in the warehouse – such as a missed call – can negate the efficiencies of upstream operations and also put at risk downstream cash flow, since orders that are not shipped cannot be invoiced.

Despite their importance in the value chain, warehouses have often been poorly connected to other parts of the enterprise.

Geographically, warehouses are often situated far from administrative and executive offices.

They have few desk staff and workers can be difficult to contact on the warehouse floor.

Presence awareness, ‘find-me-follow-me’ functionality, ‘click-to-call’ and other features of unified communications are valuable assets in warehouse environments where a misunderstood instruction may result in a cancelled or incorrect order that directly impacts the enterprise’s profitability.

While the importance alone of the warehouse operation to the overall value chain often makes it a good candidate to be upgraded to unified communications, so too does its operational complexity.

Warehouses play a pivotal role in the vendor-managed inventory agreements that underpin the just-in-time philosophy that pervades the manufacturing sector.

These agreements are often highly complex, with many interdependencies, and carry hefty penalties for incorrect or delayed deliveries.

At the same time, the trend towards demand-driven supply chains means that forecasts can change in an instant and the warehouse will be expected to accommodate these changes.

Efficiently managing service providers and carriers is thus critical.

Poor communications links jeopardise the rapid response needed to ensure efficient operations in such a fast changing environment.

Presence awareness and rich communications media that make it easy to reach warehouse or logistics staff and resolve complex situations minimise the likelihood of error that might otherwise result from lack of information or incorrect assumptions.

The smooth movement of goods through the supply chain depends on the efficient exchange of information between manufacturers and their carriers and logistics providers.

Inefficiencies and interruptions to this flow of information are quickly felt downstream in the form of delays and added costs.

The risks associated with such inefficiencies have increased exponentially in today’s globalised economy, with its stretched and fragmented supply chains, increasingly unpredictable traffic patterns and increased exposure to the vagaries of weather and political disturbances.

Yet many manufacturers and logistics providers continue to rely on email, fax and the telephone for the exchange of critical information.

Those involved in logistics must always be in contact and have adequate communications tools at their disposal.

A missed call from a carrier that results in a manufacturer failing to take advantage of an opportunity to ship a consignment as part of a split-load with another consignment may significantly impact shipping costs, on-time-delivery and other metrics.

The inability to ascertain a truck driver’s whereabouts might result in the failure to communicate a change in the shipping schedule, leading to a missed delivery deadline.

A key benefit of unified communications is its ability to automatically provide failover from one device or medium to another.

This helps minimise the potential for confusion, error and delay that is ever present in shipping and logistics.

Service and support are emerging as key differentiators in the competitive manufacturing sector, taking on the role once fulfilled by quality, reliability and advanced hardware and software features.

The contact centre is emerging as the hub of the customer’s service and support experience.

Customers expect that field service engineers and desk-based support agents will have 24/7 access to product information and customer histories and expect enquiries to be seamlessly transferred between experts for first-call resolution.

Unified communications helps enable field service staff to utilise the full range of communications tools available to them in an integrated fashion leading to faster response times and earlier resolution of problems.

‘Find-me-follow-me’, ‘click-to-forward’ and other features of unified communications allow engineers in the field to access the organisation’s full knowledge base, increasing the probability that even difficult issues can be speedily resolved on the spot.

The same benefits apply to desk-based service agents sitting in contact centres or working from home.

Many manufacturers are implementing distributed contact centres to reduce cost, mitigate risk and enable 24/7 support.

Unified communications enables enquiries to be transferred without interruption between agents, locations and systems, simplifying customer interactions and enabling faster responses.

Other manufacturers are embracing teleworking as a means to reduce support costs and retain critical staff, by providing agents with access to communications tools and applications regardless of their physical location.

Compressed lifecycles combined with intense global competition make sustainable product differentiation very difficult to achieve.

The decreasing half-life of product uniqueness means that how an organisation communicates is as important as what it communicates.

Close collaboration between marketing and sales is needed to ensure relevant and consistent messaging.

Inconsistent messaging, missed deadlines and failure to communicate a value proposition effectively are all likely to limit a supplier to approved vendor status and with it a relationship based on price and discounts.

Shared workspaces, presence awareness and other features of unified communications make team communications easier and reduce the risks inherent in managing complex proposals.

At the same time, the rise of strategic sourcing means fewer, larger and more complex opportunities to address than before, placing a premium on relationship management and communications efficiency.

More complex opportunities typically demand more sophisticated proposals and involve communicating with an extended stakeholder base.

Fewer and larger opportunities mean that relationships must be sustained over extended periods and that the cost of failure becomes higher.

Relationships are easier to sustain when one has a rich suite of communications tools to manage them.

The increased pressure on sales teams to improve the efficiency with which relationships are managed – internally with marketing and product development teams and externally with customers – needs to be considered against the backdrop of increasingly complex, dynamic and global operations that characterise the sector.

The risks and rewards associated with a growing manufacturing sector, combined with the trend towards fewer and larger opportunities makes any opportunity to improve communications worth evaluating.

Manufacturing is characterised by complex, fragmented and increasingly global business operations.

Execution of business processes in critical areas calls for collaboration across a range of functions and disciplines both within and beyond the enterprise itself.

This is easier said than done.

While business processes are typically cross-functional, most manufacturers choose to organise work and resources around individual functions so that they become organisational silos.

The only common infrastructure they share is the network – so by default it is the only platform available for hosting collaboration services that must touch all functions in the organisation.

The lack of integration between the unstructured communications tools available to these functions – email, phone, messaging and others – imposes another layer of silos onto the organisation.

The increasingly specialised structured communications systems – such as enterprise applications – in use by the various functions often serve to harden the silo walls still further by impeding rather than making it easier to share data with groups in other functional areas.

Unified communications offers a relatively easy way to bridge the silos and accelerate business processes by enabling more efficient collaboration without the need for costly applications integration.

As a collaboration platform, the network offers advantages over applications.

The network is ubiquitous and by touching every person and device in the organisation, it offers greater reach than even the most pervasive application.

Collaboration services can be managed centrally across a converged network without the need for local instances and individuals can be easily connected (and disconnected) to these services without the need to consider seat licenses and maintenance fees associated with applications.

Enabling structured communications systems – such as applications – with these features makes it easy for users to share data that would normally be accessible only to other users of the application, with anyone – users and non-users alike – assigned a telephone number or IP address, without the need for costly systems integration.

Enabling such unstructured collaboration services will release new workloads onto networks that will often have been calibrated to support existing applications only, with little headroom for new traffic.

Unless carefully managed, the new workloads can cause performance levels on critical applications to deteriorate.

Enabling the applications themselves with these new features also carries risk.

Applications designed for use by specific disciplines – such as the CAD and CAE applications used by engineering – have inbuilt security provisions that protect the integrity of data.

The prospect of adding features that would allow users to share data with anyone who has access to a phone or PC will raise concerns about the security and protection of intellectual property, particularly in a globalised environment where legal protection beyond the home country is questionable.

Any decision to deploy unified communications will need to account for a broad range of considerations from network sizing and applications prioritisation to the possibility that employees will use them to circumvent the security provisions of individual applications.

Consequently, the selection of a collaboration services provider is of profound importance.

BT’s Digital Networked Manufacturing strategy provides a framework for the deployment of BT Unified Communications and Collaboration solution that assesses the security, performance and availability implications of unified communications and helps ensure that network services – and the infrastructure over which they are deployed – remain harmonised with the enterprise’s objectives for the business functions discussed in this paper.

BT Global Services

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