By Colin Whitbread

The concept of the extended enterprise entered into the global automotive industry’s terminology a number of years ago and reflected the belief that companies must move from traditional structures towards a more interactive organisation that abandons bureaucratic and hierarchical architectures in favour of an adaptive model better suited to the digital age. These internal changes reflected the fact that roles had already been restructured in some industries, and this process is likely to broaden and deepen as boundaries between companies and their customers, suppliers, partners, and even competitors become blurred. Firms have shown themselves willing to partially or wholly abandon ideas of fixed roles in the value chain, entrenched relationships, and a predictable competitive landscape. The Internet has required-and enabled-companies to work with multiple partners around the world on multiple projects. They are also forming much closer links with all their business partners, sharing knowledge and responsibility.

The arrival of virtual, distributed organisations has meant that products and development cycles have become much more complex and companies must now network, with product development and manufacturing done collaboratively. In other words, success demands that geographically dispersed groups, divisions and supplier organisations must function as a single product development team. Some of this is not new, individual workgroups have interacted for years, albeit with most collaboration enacted at the system design level, but more recently it has become common for these workgroups to be more geographically dispersed as companies are striving to leverage appropriately skilled resources in varying physical locations.

Creation, control and maintenance of product data in such a complex environment presents a significant challenge, and two principal technologies-Mechanical Design Automation (MDA) and Product Knowledge Management (PKM)-have been widely adopted. The former products, embracing CAD/CAM/CAE suites, have traditionally had a number of drawbacks, most notably their use by specialist users or small co-located teams, often leading to “isles of knowledge” leading to information gaps between different parts of the product development team. PKM has evolved from previous product data/product information management technologies and not only captures data but also knowledge and process intelligence. As such, many PKM products now include both the ability to store and manage distributed data, as well as many other capabilities such as workflows, document and configuration management and embedded process discipline.

Certain problems have become apparent in recent years, as MDA and PKM products have evolved. Key amongst these relate to security, scalability and geographical distribution.

A by-product of progressively more sophisticated software offerings has been that more and more critical information is embedded within a company’s product development systems. This has heightened the importance of managing the security of corporate data at four levels-individual user, local workgroup, corporate and extended enterprise. A few enterprise-scale PKM technologies can handle security on this scale but to do so need to be closely integrated with the MDA systems which generate the native data.

Most existing MDA data management solutions are based on a local workgroup model and, as such, are limited in capacity in terms of number of users, size of teams and amount of data which can be handled. This means they are seldom capable of handling the level of scalability required by most extended enterprises. With regard to PKM technologies, some are based on an architecture which supports large scale data and user requirements, along with flexible configuration capabilities such that design teams are limited by software boundaries.

The growth of virtual and distributed organisations has also posed challenges as workgroups are not organised neatly according to physical location or Local Area Network (LAN). Members of teams can be hundreds or thousands of miles apart but need to share data as frequently as with team members sitting alongside them in the same office building. Although there are enterprise-scale PKM technologies which are based on distributed data models, and these enable flexible configuration of data across locations independent of workgroup organisation, to date these technologies have not been applied appropriately to address MDA data management challenges.

It comes as little surprise that many software vendors, initially led by US companies Parametric Technology Corporation (PTC) and Matrix One, and supported by industry analysts such as CIMdata and the Gartner Group, blazed a trail to create interfaces between MDA and PKM environments. These interfaces have undoubtedly enabled some organisations to store large amounts of MDA data and to some extent transport this information across some subset of the extended enterprise but many are also cumbersome, requiring multiple step data transfers as well as inconsistent user environments. This has led to a new focus on integrating, instead of interfacing, MDA and PKM technologies, with Structural Dynamics Research Corporation (SDRC), currently merging with UGS to become an EDS subsidiary, leading the way. SDRC has been actively enhancing connectivity across the extended enterprise for many years, principally through its I-DEAS and Metaphase software products and has more recently introduced the TeamCenter product suite, which specifically targets companies with significant investments in legacy software (ERP, CRM, CAD/CAM/CAE) and allows them to “talk” with each other. TeamCenter claims to be the first CAD-neutral product of its kind.

Bridging the gap between MDA and PKM was the driving force behind SDRC’s most recent new product, I-DEAS Enterprise, which leverages elements of both I-DEAS and Metaphase. The company claims that this product is a true integration of MDA and PKM, providing a unified environment with virtually unlimited scalability and geographic reach. It also claims that many rivals are at least 18 months away from launching competing products-a very significant buffer in such a competitive business.

An interesting aspect of I-DEAS Enterprise is that it employs a team concept in which teams represent logical collections of people who need to collaborate based on ownership rules and business processes, as opposed to physical location. Logical team data locations are defined to represent data created and owned by each team. A Java-based interface is used to provide consistent and simultaneous access to all data that resides on the user’s desktop as well as data which are organised by team and shared across the enterprise, based on defined access privileges.

Although some analysts have recently been critical of software companies for creating “solutions” which then feverishly search for defined problems, it appears that integration (as opposed to interfacing) of MDA and PKM can offer real a real solution to problems associated with security, scalability and accessibility. OEMs and suppliers are offered unlimited scope in terms of both number of users and amount of data, meaning that as product development projects expand globally and across traditional linear supply chains, the number of individuals accessing design data, whether for authoring or for viewing, may increase throughout the life of the development programme. Customers now need convincing that such capabilities offer real value enhancing benefits. Sceptics will probably continue to believe that collaborative product development in the extended enterprise remains doomed, reflecting conflicting and vested interests. Software vendors will remain convinced that each advance in their arsenal of products will bring such a collaboration era even closer.

What is clear is that true collaboration can only come about when a robust software architecture is in place and that integration of MDA and PKM is another step along this road. Preliminary indications suggest that the automotive community, although naturally sceptical regarding many new software “breakthroughs”, has warmed to the potential for this integration and is set to embrace it in the near future.

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