Portal may help manufacturers meet time-to-market pressures

The modern manufacturer faces drastically reduced time-to-market design cycles, thanks, according to Vern Rhead, to global competition brought about by the Internet.

Rhead, visualization product manager for Hewlett-Packard Co., was at Toronto’s Science Centre recently to introduce e-Vis.com, a new Internet portal for enterprise and supplier collaboration launched through a joint initiative with visualization software company Engineering Animation Inc. (EAI).

In order to stay competitive today, manufacturers are faced with the challenge of reducing design times and resources by about one third, while at the same time improving product quality and performance at a lower cost, Rhead said.

“Companies are outsourcing key, critical design information to other partners. The sizes of their data sets – terabytes (of information) – are growing exponentially.”

Users can subscribe to e-Vis.com to share and interact with documents, CAD drawings and 3-D graphics, collaborate on designs and capture project decisions in real time, using a simple browser interface. The portal includes conference capabilities, search and change notification tools, access to news and ‘hot topics,’ a Web-casting theatre, an interactive on-line training centre and an on-line marketplace which can be used to match manufacturing buyers and sellers. EAI is hoping to attract organizations in a wide range of industries including automotive, aerospace, electronics, utilities, engineering and construction.

Under the terms of the agreement with EAI, HP will support the portal with hosting services, Web content, marketing support, outsourcing, consulting and server platforms.

Adrian Sannier, vice-president and general manager of e-services for Ames, Iowa-based EAI, said he found a consistent theme when talking with customers about the challenges they faced – that manufacturers need to make their supply chains more efficient.

“Over 50 per cent of manufacturing is now done in the supply chain. It used to be that manufacturing was done in big vertical stacks, where the company owned everything from the foundry to the trucks that delivered the product,” he explained.

“But today, more and more of that expertise is outsourced to suppliers. At the end of the day, the story for manufacturers is to shorten their time-to-market.”

Alan Freedman, research manager, servers and workstations, for Toronto-based IDC (Canada) Corp., said although the e-Vis portal idea is a good one, he wasn’t convinced the concept was all that new.

“I think that a lot of manufacturing and work-intensive companies like that are going to go towards something where they can share on-line. Especially in this distributed environment,” he said. “However, I’m not sure how much different it is from what’s (already) being done right now.”

According to EAI’s Sannier, the difference is that most information portals currently on the Internet are “passive” because they are merely used for gathering information.

“In general, you can’t fit these portals into your business processes. They provide information, they provide a vehicle for advertising. But they don’t provide a way for you to reengineer your business.”

Scott Beer, manager of IT with Ames, Iowa-based fluid power manufacturing company Sauer-Sundstrand Co., uses EAI’s e-Vis.com to collaborate ideas with his customers and design team. He said one way he has found to speed up the time-to-market process is to do more collaborative design in a parallel, rather than serial, process.

“So instead of just giving specifications, [customers] are involved. Their design work is going on in the middle of our design work and we are doing things in parallel. And we are getting our suppliers involved at the same time. So it’s like we are pulling all these inputs up earlier in the process,” Beer explained.

“You get all of those elements up front in a big messy meeting, and you start throwing out ideas, and designing and collaborating, and there’s just more interaction. You don’t make as many assumptions without immediate feedback. One idea leads to another one. And that whole bumping together of electrons causes something different than you would have created in a serial process.”

Of course, the best case scenario is to get everybody together in the same room with the real, physical hardware, Beer said.

“If you can feel it, touch it, smell it, you are engaging all your senses and you are going to make better decisions. But in the event where you can’t do that and you are spread around, if you can collaborate and get more definition through the pictures with visualization tools, you get more information than from just a two-dimensional drawing. You are stimulating more of the senses.”

To suggest the use of visualization tools is as effective as interaction with a solid prototype is nothing more than “market hype,” he said.

“It’s just like you’re never going to make a non-alcoholic beer taste as good as an alcoholic one. The real thing is always going to be better. But in the absence of the real thing, you can get pretty close.”