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Online collaboration: a web of industry

By enabling better and wider information flow, the Web and Web-like technologies are revolutionising relationships within the manufacturing industry, as E&T discovers.

Most of us know that the Web has revolutionised the selling of manufactured goods, thanks to the likes of eBay and Amazon, but it has also made dramatic changes in how things are made, too.

The headlines tend to go to the likes of the 3D manufacturing companies, which allow you to upload a design - for jewellery, toys, artworks or whatever - and then have the finished one-off or short-run product shipped over.

But behind the scenes, a host of otherwise straightforward manufacturers are using the Web in all sorts of innovative ways - to improve communications between office and departments, to speed up the flow of information up and down the supply chain, or to make collaborative design feasible on a world-wide scale.

Not just advertising

The Web, and Web-derived collaborative technologies such as telepresence, are making a huge difference. Initially, of course, manufacturers usually use the Web to advertise their products and competencies. However, while what is, in effect, an e-brochure has its advantages, especially given its relatively low cost and world-wide reach, the longer-term relationships typical of the manufacturing world mean that a whole lot more is possible.

For contract electronics manufacturer Ultra Cems, the Web was an opportunity to give customers maximum visibility into the manufacturing process. The company spent around £150,000 designing and setting-up an online portal, which its customers can log into - they can then see what is going on with their project, tracking its progress from start to finish.

'It was driven by our pursuit of SC21, the 21st century supply chain - it's all about increasing efficiency in the supply chain,' says Nick Mair, Ultra Cems' sales and marketing manager. 'So we set off on a journey looking at how, by the use of the Web, we could make it possible for our customers to see the progress of their contract manufacturing jobs in our factories.'

Mair points out that while a project - such as building electronics to go into airliners, trains or tanks - might require thousands of other products or components to be drawn together and assembled, any of which could be delayed upstream and therefore delay the whole project - the only thing visible to the customer is the finished product or device.

'Customers are sophisticated enough to realise that is only the end of the process though, so they want a window into the process,' he adds. 'What they say, over and over again, is if you're going to be late, let us know. In the past, we got emails and calls asking for updates, so we took the next step and gave them a secure portal giving a near-live view into the process.

'Our system is near-live, we are working towards real-time but the point is it's the information that's in our factory systems, so it's the same as they'd get by email or phone - without the latency of how quickly I can respond to the email. It reduces the amount of phone and email traffic we have to deal with - but it does so while improving customer service, not degrading it.'

He admits that the system is not for everyone, and that 'a fair number of customers still prefer to phone or ask for weekly status reports. We can't force them to use the portal.'

Things are different upstream though, where Ultra Cems has also developed similar systems for its suppliers, over whom it has more authority and leverage. Mair says that if a component fails, its supplier, for instance, is informed by email, and they then have to log on and send information on their planned corrective action.

Online fittings

For design-led manufacturers, Web and Web-like collaboration technologies are proving ideal for linking geographically-dispersed design, sales and manufacturing departments.

One company that has taken the plunge is designer clothing outfit Tommy Hilfiger, which is using a BT-supplied videoconferencing system based around telepresence hardware from Tandberg - now part of Cisco. Telepresence is the name given to schemes which use big video screens to connect up two meeting rooms, so that people in one appear almost to be physically present in the other.

The system has gone down well with weary road-warriors. As Marcella Wartenbergh, a Tommy Hilfiger vice-president based in the Netherlands, recalls: 'Some months we would spend 15 days just travelling from one site to another. I used to miss out on everything from management meetings to family birthday parties.'

As well as the direct costs in time and travel, she says there were crucial speed-to-market penalties for new products. When fabrics and designs needed to be approved, samples had to be sent by international courier. Comments and alterations were interpreted - and sometimes misinterpreted - from written instructions. Often, a new design would travel back and forth several times before it could be approved.

Tommy Hilfiger now has virtual meeting rooms in Amsterdam, New York, Hong Kong and Tokyo, with potentially more to follow. It calls these its Virtual Fitting Rooms, with teams coming together to discuss a clothing collection face-to-face without having to take long-distance flights. Multiple cameras and large high-definition screens mean a fitting in one location can be experienced by designers elsewhere as if they were in the same room, with mobile cameras allowing participants to zoom in to view and discuss a logo, button, or a single stitch.

'Imagine the benefit of that real-time decision-making process, compared with trying to explain your requirements in writing,' says Mike Day, the company's CIO. The Virtual Fitting Room has transformed the creative process, enabling more people to be involved, more regular collaboration between teams, greatly reduced time-to-market, and a truly interactive approval process.

He adds that the telepresence system is also used for management meetings, noting that 'the return on investment of the system is estimated to be just 18 months. That's based on direct costs alone. It saves money, improves work life balance, and makes us a more sustainable business'.

Telecollaboration

In more traditional engineering environments, where documents and drawings are involved, manufacturers need a somewhat different approach, argues Preetam Heeramun, technical manager at telecollaboration developer Cereno. He cites research into the virtual office of the future started a decade ago by engineering giant Thales, and says the key findings were that current technologies only solved parts of the puzzle. Telecollaboration is therefore an attempt to pull them all together and create a much richer environment.

'For example, telepresence is very good for meetings, but its functionality for documents is very limited,' he says.

Conversely, Web conferencing systems can be good at application and document sharing, but they are much less good at face-to-face communication - and crucially, they don't give the participants enough space to view and share all the information they're working with.

'The [PC] desktop is just too congested,' he explains, adding that the Thales research - upon which Cereno's nuVa system is based - also uncovered other vital factors, which most current collaboration systems were missing. 'One was the distinction between what we call person space and task space - it is important to distinguish between them. The research also showed the importance of the person space being vertical and the collaboration surface being horizontal.'

The nuVa system therefore has two screens, one upright and one flat, with the latter able to work with a digital pen. 'We're also looking at finger-touch technology - people expect touchscreens now. Nothing beats a pen for annotating, though,' says Heeramun.

This drive to make long-distance collaboration more efficient and effective is an inevitable consequence of economics and globalisation. As such, whether companies in the manufacturing sector like it or not, they are going to get connected one way or another - if they don't do it themselves, their customers will mandate it.

As Heeramun says: 'There is a need for companies to tap into pockets of intelligence wherever they are.' He adds: 'We are already starting to see changes with the economic climate - a lot of organisations had to take difficult decisions, they are under pressure to do more with less, so they have operations in different locations, sometimes it is a matter of cost but it also depends where the skills are.'

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