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Tapping the Potential of the New IT Landscape

 Tony Christian








 By Tony Christian

Can we remember life before the acceleration of technology in the last 20 years that has resulted in internet-enabled technologies being both an integral part of daily life and essential tools for business? For manufacturers, the flood of such technologies—cloud computing, smart devices, Internet of Things, mobile communications—is changing the business landscape fundamentally.

In addition to ‘local’ efficiency/productivity improvements—a faster or higher quality production process, better monitoring of factory activities and processes, or better information sharing between two participants in the supply chain—these technologies open up opportunities for improvement right across the extended enterprise. They allow entire traditional supply chains and product lifecycle processes to be completely re-engineered.

Even before the internet we used to talk about ‘pull-driven’ supply chains, where the whole system was so integrated and responsive that it could meet a customer requirement if not from scratch, then from a point as far towards the origins of the product as was feasible given the acceptable delivery time. However, access to the technologies like ERP, Supply Chain management (SCM) and Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) that are key to effective information sharing used to be difficult for smaller companies in the supply chain.

Today, though, internet-enabled connectivity allows sharing of bang-up-to-date commercial and product data from end to end through the supply chain, as well as high levels of communication with the customer, thereby achieving levels of responsiveness (and product accuracy) that were not possible before. The result should be shorter lead times, improved product quality and reduced inventory—no more of the inventory accumulation at points in the supply chain resulting from so-called ‘fields of dreams’ planning.

For the product lifecycle, the potential changes are even more dramatic with the ultimate prospect being full closed loop integration from concept to end of life. Internet-enabled connectivity and cloud-based application infrastructures allow practically whatever level of communication the participants in the project want through the product development phase. Then, smart connected devices for collecting in-service performance data and condition monitoring are transforming the provision of product servicing, even allowing detailed and up to date technical information—like virtual product definitions in the form of 3D models, animations and service data—to be delivered to the service engineer’s mobile device. So not only is there a great services opportunity but demand for spares or replacement can be managed even more effectively based on the product’s operational condition. Not only that, but the data collected gives invaluable feedback to inform product improvements, thereby closing the whole loop.

While all of this sounds like the opening up of a whole new world for manufacturers, fully exploiting the potential requires a rather sophisticated IT infrastructure that is highly integrated all the way from planning to real time operations—that is, all the way from ERP to the manufacturing execution system (MES). There’s a lot of functional overlap to be grappled with. And in the new era of smart products and IoT connectivity there’s an additional complexity—integrating the management of the lifecycle of the embedded software into the product lifecycle management picture. Providing the necessary support for this ‘application lifecycle management’ (ALM) aspect is currently PLM’s biggest technical challenge.

Overall, then, manufacturers are confronted with an opportunity and a problem—the opportunity of highly connected integrated supply chains and product lifecycle management processes, but the problem of what IT infrastructure to build to achieve them.

Each manufacturer needs a strategy to allow it to define the right combination of technologies and then exploit it. The key to this is to get below all of the high-level hype associated with cloud, IoT and so on and to identify real solutions to deliver success. 


This article was first published in the October 2015 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.

Published Date : 10/1/2015

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