The power of enterprise social technologies in manufacturing

New technologies are enabling manufacturers to manage costs while boosting efficiency and innovation

Cherie Rowlands
Cherie Rowlands
By Cherie Rowlands on 27 March 2014
The power of enterprise social technologies in manufacturing

This article was first published in the Spring 2014 issue of Prime

A new set of social capabilities is emerging within both the consumer and enterprise space. Manufacturers are increasingly collaborating with each other to share information in ways that influence decision making. While in an ever-more mobile work environment, employees are keen to talk to each other and break down the traditional silos within their organisations. This is reflected in the findings in Avanade’s May 2013 study Global Survey: Is enterprise social living up to its promise? that shows social enterprise is firmly on the agenda for business owners and IT decision makers, with 77% confirming that they are currently using social technologies and 82% wanting to use more of them in the future.

“Collaborative social software has increased massively in popularity in the last 18 to 24 months,” says David Oates, vice president international at Actiance. “Social suites such as Facebook have had a lot to do with this. Users within organisations were so familiar with these interfaces that a collaborative platform had to use something similar, where you post and get a response very quickly. People have got into the habit of looking at it, checking it and digesting the information that’s in there.” Actiance enables enterprise social communication through Vantage, the company’s core product platform that runs on Microsoft SharePoint.

Despite familiarity with social interfaces and the benefits of social computing, manufacturers do not always have a clear idea of why they are adopting it or what they want to achieve, according to Simon Floyd, business development and strategy director at Microsoft. “The point of social enterprise is to show businesses how they can use technology to foster innovation, be more efficient and increase collaboration,” he says. “It works, which is good, but companies often implement the technology without thinking about what the end game is or why they are doing it in the first place.”

Yet both discrete and process manufacturers have much to gain from these new ways of working, not only in terms of more meaningful connections, but from faster and more efficient internal business processes. “As manufacturing operations are frequently spread across different sites – whether that’s the four corners of the UK or the four corners of the globe – people can work together on projects,” says Oates. “Whether on a new product design, an IT project, or across their supply chain, they can collaborate in real time in a way that allows them to feel that they are truly working together.”

“It is possible to capture the power of the entire organisation and do it in a way that’s fast, increases productivity and has a high value attached to it,” he continues. “That’s why enterprise social technology is filtering down to more traditional businesses such as manufacturers. They can speed up their time to market and improve customer service and internal processes by adopting this type of solution.”

Junction Solutions’ executive vice president of strategy and products, Christian Hutter adds: “Organisations are also leveraging social communities for valuable feedback on future product innovation, as well as using enterprise social networks such as Yammer, to collaborate internally. Virtually every business process can benefit from social media to help manufacturers manage costs, improve efficiency and quality and generate new growth opportunities.”

Social and collaboration technologies can not only ensure that things like aesthetics, function and materials are socialised long before considering bringing potential new products to market, says Jan Larsson, senior marketing director EMEA at Siemens PLM Software. “You want to have full confidence in that product and address as many potential problems as possible as early in the process as possible, so that your planes don’t have reliability issues, for example,” he says. Siemens PLM Software's HD-PLM strategy brings everyone close to help this process. And standards such as the JT data format allow easy viewing, sharing and collaboration of digital 3D product information in real time throughout all phases of the product’s lifecycle. “You could be in the concept stage and want to look at five different alternatives, put that in front of a number of prospective customers who add their comments and views before sending it back. This narrows down the options for another round of feedback with everyone able to look at 3D models along the way,” Larsson says. Collaborating in this more social way and sharing the data with customers, as well as the extended internal network, can help achieve as much of the design work as possible ahead of developing physical prototypes, which helps reduce the time a product takes to get to market as well as increasing the number of successful product launches. “Manufacturers want to bring products to market as quickly as possible and it is important that they get it right first time,” explains Eduard Marfa, EMEA marketing director for Teamcenter at Siemens PLM Software. “Increasing the number of successful products they launch is a challenge. The ratio of products launched successfully from ideas is around 40% to 50% so that’s one of the big concerns for companies developing products for market, particularly in the case of consumer products”

Collaboration can also extend across the entire supply chain so all the participants are involved in the innovation process. “Building an aircraft or any type of large transportation product has a big supply chain behind it, it’s not just one company being the brains behind everything,” Floyd says. “The manufacturer might go to their suppliers and say we’re trying to solve this particular problem and we need this component of the system to perform in the following way. It needs to conform to these parameters, and be lightweight and low cost. They may not know how to do it themselves but the expertise exists on the outside so having that dialogue between the enterprise and its partners is an important one, especially if it can be in a forum that allows people to take advantage of social computing. This helps to solve problems in a shorter period of time and with a higher value solution than if your top people attempted to come up with a solution in isolation.”

Hutter explains another benefit of supply chain collaboration: “Enabling manufacturers to interact with suppliers through their private web portals can improve the procurement process,” he says. “This is where our CLEARthru mobile traceability application comes in. Integrated with Microsoft Dynamics AX, it enables food and beverage, consumer packaged goods and life sciences manufacturers to track and trace the full supply chain path of their products.”

Expanding on the supply chain benefits for process manufacturing, David Wheeldon, chief technical officer at Aveva, says that in contrast to discrete manufacturing where the goal is to have a stable and predictable supply chain with fixed numbers and a known set of suppliers, process manufacturing has a fragmented supply chain. Therefore, it can be a challenge to ensure information and knowledge continuity in these projects. “Social enterprise technology is coming to the rescue of these rather challenging project scenarios,” he explains. “Mobile devices and touch-based user interfaces can bring people’s skills – that were otherwise locked into islands – together in a much more collaborative team-working environment. People can contribute and modify that data wherever they happen to be located, using a combination of Microsoft Windows 8 tablets and Windows Azure as the communication backbone and for data storage.”

Aveva’s E3D Insight is a Windows 8.1 app that allows project decision makers in the power, process and mining industries to view and approve 3D plant designs. “This solution also enables people to gather around a large touch screen to view and make design changes,” says Wheeldon. “One major oil company has decided to deploy the technology and we’re looking to extend that to multi-location collaboration.”

No matter whether a process or discrete manufacturer, producing tinned food or building aircraft, it is essential that you get your materials, components and parts on time, believes Marfa. “These companies rely on structured information and, as they apply just-in-time manufacturing with very short lead times in terms of materials, they need strong collaboration with their supply chains,” he says.

In addition, big projects often incur waste though people using information they believe to be correct but which has been superceded by more up-to-date information due to a lack of collaboration, according to Wheeldon. “Basing decisions on dated information can result in fabricating items which are wrong and only finding out at installation that the piece is not going to fit because the design has changed since you last saw it,” he says. “The timescale from inception to first production needs to be as short as possible, which means building gets underway before the design is finished. That can lead to quite gross waste if a constructed part has to be modified before it can be assembled and inserted in the facility. All that rework, cost and additional time is caused by the fragmented nature of these projects and imperfect access to changing information.

“By using a combination of mobile devices and Windows Azure for on-the-go collaboration, we enable customers to continuously monitor what is being constructed and feed that back into the design process. This means manufacturers can make changes at this stage rather than when the product is being made, as this is incredibly expensive. The saving is around 10% of the construction cost, which represents around 40% of the total cost of the facility. This collaboration also has a safety aspect to it. Having to modify things during on-site construction with people up ladders with big hammers and spanners is fairly dangerous.”

The cost savings do not stop there. Most manufacturers have dispersed and possibly homegrown technology, so the cost of running that IT landscape is tremendous, says Larsson. “When you consolidate this into fewer applications not only do you get the quality benefit of everyone working from one source of information and make that information easy and quick to access on any platform, mobile or not,, but from an IT landscape training point of view that’s a huge saving” he says. Floyd continues: “The cost of putting in social computing is negligible compared to trying to do all this in a manual fashion. If you wanted to bring about this amount of collaboration it would be a nightmare – trying to find all these people, bringing them together and coordinating them in the right fashion, converting all whiteboarding, writing on pieces of paper and attempting to share that around is awful. This is like lightning. You put it in digital form and a whole community of people can see it and interact with it.”

“Once social enterprise technology has been put in place, beyond the cost of deployment, interaction between the users is basically at no cost,” Actiance’s Oates adds.

Floyd agrees that there is plenty of benefit in social collaboration, but sounds a cautionary note for companies considering more consumer-based solutions such as Facebook or Twitter to solve their business needs. “It’s not always the most productive thing to do for the enterprise,” he says. “Facebook is outstanding for collaboration, because you can see and have a history of everything that occurred on a topic. It allows ad hoc connections between people, concepts, topics and themes, but there has to be compliance within the organisation around who can see it or not. That’s where it falls over quickly because there are privacy, compliance and control problems. Intellectual property – who is permitted access to posts – is also a big concern. To me, a Facebook marketing strategy is a digital brochure – you can do measurements so it is good for digital marketing, but could you use that for product development?”

It seems IT decision makers agree with Floyd when it comes to investing in technologies specifically designed for enterprise collaboration. The Avanade report shows that although 74% of businesses are currently using Facebook for their social networking needs and 39% are using SharePoint, this is set to change. The study predicts that of businesses adopting enterprise social tools in 2014, 23% want SharePoint most, while the use of Facebook is expected to fall to 8%, indicating the start of a trend away from the use of consumer social tools in enterprise.

Manufacturers are also benefiting from more efficient and faster collaboration through the use of tools such as Junction Solutions’ CLEARthru to engage with consumers regarding food safety and the Actiance platform, Vantage, for simplifying management and compliance of enterprise communication. Siemens PLM Software’ JT data format enables manufacturers to more quickly view and share product information in a 3D format throughout the product lifecycle. And Aveva’s 3D Insight allows process manufacturing decision makers to view and approve 3D plant designs. Meanwhile, Yammer enables both cross-functional and multi-location collaboration. These solutions enable manufacturers to collaborate in real time, not just within one location, but across multiple sites and the entire supply chain. They also allow everyone to work on the correct and most up-to-date information, which reduces waste and ensures all parts are ready and available on time. This will not only reduce costs and simplify the IT landscape but also increase employee engagement, leading to more innovation, creativity and, ultimately, better products.

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