Integration is the Name of the Game in Software Systems

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For a manufacturer seeking better communication between its engineering and manufacturing wings, as well as a design-build engineering firm trying to expand its profit margins, a business process streamlined across the entire enterprise is a valuable commodity.

Companies are using enterprise resource planning (ERP) software tools at an increasing rate to help smooth the rough edges of their business practices. ERP attempts to integrate all of a company's departments and functions-such as human resources, financial management, project management, and sales-onto a single computer system that serves those segments' individual needs.

Not an easy task. But vendors such as SAP, Oracle, Baan, and IFS Inc. have continued to tackle the challenges of ERP. Most top vendors' ERP solutions are Web-enabled and give clients options for application service provider-hosted solutions. Unsure of the ASP model, some mid-tier and larger client companies have been more comfortable outsourcing their entire information technology function to companies such as IBM and EDS.

Trend Watching   

As the future of ERP holds high stakes for many companies, trends are watched closely by research organizations such as the Aberdeen Group and Technology Evaluation Center Inc. According to the Aberdeen Group, key trends include an increased push toward collaborative product commerce, which relates to manufacturers' use of Internet collaboration to connect the entire product lifecycle. Aberdeen researchers say collaborative product commerce looks like the next logical step for manufacturers trying to gain a competitive advantage and move aggressively toward a custom manufacturing business model.

Other trends include the rise of XML standards to promote cross-enterprise communication between applications, more integrated solutions for ERP, and tailored solutions for specific industries, says Ben Spencer, senior director of knowledge bases and content development for the Technology Evaluation Center. The center develops TechnologyEvaluation.Com, a business-to-business technology research and evaluation portal on the Web. Spencer says the center objectively researches marketplace trends and uses a knowledge-based selection process to help companies find an ERP system that matches their business needs.

"We've seen a lot more integration, [based on] a recognition in manufacturing companies that there's a need for software to help bridge the gap and create a liaison between engineering and manufacturing," says Spencer. "Software is only going to get more and more integrated and easy to use, which enables companies to become more efficient and provide faster response time to clients." Historically, software tools have been stand-alone, a hodge-podge of different applications and systems that made companies run, he says.

Built into ERP solutions or added as a separate module, product data management (PDM) is evolving as an efficient way to collect and control data such as CAD drawings, revision information, test documents, and inspection requirements. PDM then allows users to share this information throughout the organization, so that the manufacturing floor knows, as do the engineering and sales departments, which are the latest product releases.

Reducing Redundancy   

IFS Inc. and others have demonstrated the PDM capability to import CAD drawing data and load a parts list into a bill of materials, which structures itself based on the engineering design. PDM tools also aid project collaboration and help reduce redundant use of design components.

New features in this month's release of Baan's c-Ark products for PDM will focus on Web-based design collaboration with multiple users, says Neal White, senior vice president of marketing for Baan Americas. Through Baan's ERP product, which focuses on the manufacturing and distribution associated with the creation of engineered parts, Baan has Web-enabled ERP transaction capabilities to support collaboration for planning and procurement.

Another manufacturing trend is the movement toward automation of product configurations, giving clients some capability to customize the end product, Spencer says. He has talked to companies that are interested in using a product configurator to allow clients to confirm which product release they have, access the availability of after-market parts, and assess the potential for integration of products with their systems. This keeps tighter control over product revision and product release levels, he says. The client feedback also helps companies provide a more targeted service to their customers.

"Customers are more demanding and are expecting to be able to have more input into the end product," explains White. "From a manufacturing perspective, each of the manufacturers is trying to reduce the lead time from that very specific customer order to delivery, because that is now a competitive metric people are using."

As traditionally mass-production-based manufacturing companies move toward custom-tailored products, the traditionally made-to-order AEC industry is moving toward increased standardization of parts. However, the AEC industry's increasing use of design-build on construction projects is paralleled by the manufacturing world's evolution toward full lifecycle management and maintenance by the original service provider, industry watchers say. In the manufacturing sector, decreasing margins on manufactured products and price competition from globalization are driving this trend, says White.

The Whole Shebang   

In the AEC arena, "not only do [customers] want firms to engineer buildings on the site, but they want them to build it and finish the interior. And when it comes to maintenance, they would like the same company involved," says White. His company offers iBaan ERP tools for construction project engineers.

Also in response to market demands, the major ERP vendors have developed tailored solutions for particular industry segments, Spencer says. For example, Baan is introducing an ERP product this month in the electronics, logistics, and automotive areas.

An example of an industry-specific solution within the e-business platform is mySAP Engineering & Construction, which integrates the full life cycle of products and projects. It carries the project from concept, specification, and design, through manufacturing, procurement, construction, operations, and maintenance, SAP reports. Using Web-enabled applications, mySAP E & C provides tools for program management and collaborative engineering, e-procurement, construction and site management, project management and scheduling, and maintenance and decommissioning, among other capabilities.

Supporting mySAP E & C, mySAP Product Lifecycle Management creates a collaborative environment for users to control and track product-related information over the entire life cycle and communicate product and asset information throughout the supply chain. In addition, mySAP Mobile Business uses a personalized portal called Mobile Workplace to give mobile access to solutions via handheld devices.

Immersed in dynamic industries with even more dynamic IT solutions, companies can easily get caught up in the hype of many different vendors. Whatever specific software or Web-based ERP solution you choose, carefully test and evaluate it first to be sure it's the right solution for your company, Spencer advises. Engineers should think about the business issues that are driving them to adopt an ERP system, document the unique requirements of their system, and develop "checkpoints" of software that will help them achieve their business goals.

"It's like going out and buying a suit," he says. "A solution for one company may not be the same as for the next company."

This article from the October, 2001 issue of Engineering Times, is published with permission of Engineering Times, a publication of the National Society of Professional Engineers.

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