The Lifecycle 98 conference in Birmingham last week was a coming-of-age party for object technology in manufacturing. As increasing competition forces manufacturers to look for greater efficiency, collaborative product development through joint ventures and supply chain management have leapt to the forefront - and object based computing can help with both.
The uptake of objects has been largely to enable companies to exchange data more easily between diverse systems - but the focus on object request brokers is only the most recent in a decade of developments aimed at making systems more interoperable.
The manufacturing industries have a great need to exchange data, and consequently Step (Standard for Exchange of Product Model Data, or ISO 10303) was developed over the past 10 years to enable engineering and manufacturing systems to remain open.
In addition, distributed product data management systems (PDMS) are increasingly being deployed to pass data between different applications and even different companies, supporting integration with Cad/Cam/Cae (computer aided design, manufacturing and engineering) systems, as well as planning systems. Each sector has a dozen or so vendors, although there has been some consolidation.
At the conference, Dr Kais Al-Timini, head of Datamation, noted that Step was the biggest and most complex standardisation initiative ever undertaken by the ISO, but he expressed reservations about PDM systems that are just document or file centric. If environments are to be truly collaborative, there needs to be sharing of low granularity data, together with seamless integration between the PDM system and other applications, he argued.
But despite some shortcomings, integration has been improving. Alan Griffiths of IIC Consulting pointed to some of the drivers for this. The competitive battleground is now in the customisation of products rather than price, with plant efficiency and just-in-time techniques becoming subservient to agility in manufacturing, assembling to order, and integrating the supply chain.
In this environment, database or application oriented IT systems are inadequate for work management, automation, storage and retrieval of heterogeneous data, and especially for managing complexity.
A major problem is the legacy, not just of information, but of IT systems, procedures and - most difficult to change - of culture. IDC and Document Management estimate that less than 15 per cent of eight billion drawings are in a Cad format, for instance.
Industry consortia such as the AIT (Advanced Information Technology for the European manufacturing industry) and the OMG (Object Management Group) have contributed significantly to alleviating this situation. Dr Richard Soley, the chief executive of the OMG, outlined how OMG procedures resulted in standards being rapidly developed by consensus. In the financial services and health sectors, the Corba (common object request broker architecture)standard was becoming compelling rather than merely desirable, he claimed, and the same would happen in manufacturing.
Digital, Fujitsu, IBM, Matrix One, Metaphase Technology/SDRC, and Sherpa have collaborated, using Corba technology, to develop domain software components for the manufacturing sector, known as the Product Data Management Enablers' Initiative. This was achieved in around 18 months. Parametric Technology (which acquired Computervision in January) gave the first UK demonstration of its Windchill enterprise information management product, which has a Java wrapper around the database.
Some vendors were concerned that Year 2000 conversion budget demands were holding back sales in the product data management sector. The early adopters moved some years ago, Brian Jordan of Siemens said, but the early majority was rather slow to act and some had difficulty working out the potential return on investment.
Francis Hayden, the object architect of the CSC/British Aerospace team, lamented the fragmentation that occurs in complex aerospace industry projects. He distinguished business fragmentation, with temporary collaborations between companies and countries; domain fragmentation where businesses and disciplines had evolved independently; and technology fragmentation that resulted in different generations of tools and data being used simultaneously.
Pan-European joint ventures and mergers had created a need for a new approach to PDM, Hans Key of Semaphore Europe suggested. He thought that object technology and Corba could provide a PDM architectural approach within and between enterprises, and that a resulting plug-and-play environment could be responsive to changing business needs.
Although the product and process control technologies discussed in Birmingham were being used primarily in large industries with complex requirements (particularly aerospace, automotive, shipbuilding and defence), there is little doubt that there is a great need for better control in the development of major software projects.
Software development is still in the stone age as far as delivering relatively bug-free software on time and to budget is concerned. There are some lessons in product development and control to be learned from the manufacturing industries, it would appear.
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