The majority of UK manufacturing companies are not yet ready, culturally, for the Internet and collaborative design solutions. So says Nick Ballard of engineering consultancy Cambashi. He adds: “Most companies haven’t even adopted a PDM [product data management] system at all yet, never mind the Internet. Companies are still buying point solutions, and are confused as to what the vendors are actually offering them.” PDM is about managing product information, throughout the entire lifecycle of a product, in a more efficient, organised way. The information may be in the form of a 3D model, some 2D drawings, a bill of materials (BOMs), or even some test and quality data related to a particular product, assembly, drawing, or component. But crucially, in today’s competitive world, where shorter time-to-market and lower product lifecycle costs are twin concerns for most manufacturers, this information needs to be shared and made instantly available to everyone across the enterprise (especially design and manufacturing) – and more frequently these days, between separate sites. Indeed, over the last decade, there’s been a trend towards globalisation, more acquisitions, and a definite move towards outsourcing the design (and manufacturing) function. So companies now, more than ever, will be forced to begin to adopt collaborative working practices in order to survive. Ballard comments: “This trend [globalisation] means businesses can often start losing that all-important link between design and manufacturing. The need to control design intent is driving the market for collaborative web-based technologies.” So what do the analysts think? According to Gartner, adopting collaborative working techniques is not an option these days, it’s a necessity. In a report earlier this year, it predicted that, by 2003, all successful manufacturers will have adopted collaborative approaches, leading to competitive parity. What it calls “collaborative product commerce” (or CPC) will be the norm, a necessary step for survival, but not necessarily a guarantee for success. Enter the vendors. Geoff Turner, business development manager for MatrixOne, a strong player in the PDM mid-market, has a range of PDM and collaborative web-based solutions to offer SMEs. “For the last decade most SMEs have been locked out of the benefits of collaborative working by expensive PDM solutions with long implementation times. Quite simply, smaller businesses don’t have the time, investment capital or expertise that larger enterprises do,” he says. “Our solutions are affordable for the mid-market ... from £100,000 for small-to-mid-size implementations ... to around half a million pounds for larger projects.” Faster review of designs Solidworks (now part of Dassault Systemes), like MatrixOne, is aiming at mid-to small-size businesses. It offers users real-time collaboration through its 3D Instant Website product, part of Solidworks 2001. This web-based tool allows users to create and publish live web pages with Solidworks models and drawings, allowing faster review of product designs. It’s also offered as a hosted web service – or users can simply publish designs on their own website if they prefer. Unigraphics (now UGS) is also making great strides with its PDM offering, iMAN. And by way of testimony, last year Dutch display components manufacturer, Philips Components implemented a customised version of iMAN specifically for collaborative working. The software runs from servers at 20 Philips sites, enabling 100 users across design and manufacturing to share information in real-time. Philips’ project manager, Christiaan Boland comments: “iMAN now allows us to launch eight new products a year instead of two ... it’s also helping us to be a front-runner in our industry.” CoCreate’s OneSpace offering is also worth a mention. It offers manufacturers a ‘virtual conference room’ where product development teams can connect and exchange 3D mechanical engineering information, resolving problems and communicating in real-time (from anywhere in the world) with one another. What’s really useful here is that alternative design models can be constructed on-line, driving innovation and speeding up product development times considerably. And Smarteam is also making great strides for businesses by offering to leverage their PDM information to any part of the enterprise, with its SmartBOM solution. Tom Leeson, business development manager, comments: “Many companies want to start small but then scale the system up to hundreds or thousands of users inside and outside the company. We can offer them web-centric and ASP-ready technology with a low up front investment [typically between £100,000 and £200,000] and fast implementation times.” Blinded by technology UK consultancy firm, Solass, specialises in providing advice to small and mid size manufacturing companies, particularly in enterprise-wide PDM projects. All three consultants who set up the business are ex-employees of SDRC, a major PDM vendor that focuses on solutions for the mid-to-large end of the market. Tony Jessop, one of the founder members, believes that the majority of PDM and so-called ‘collaborative commerce’ vendors are in danger of confusing manufacturers with their acronyms and emphasis on technology rather than people. He explains: “We’re disillusioned by the approach most PDM vendors are taking these days. They’re relying on technology alone to deliver projects, and this is simply not going to work for manufacturers. “Businesses are in danger of being blinded by the technology. They lose the focus of the project, and forget what the actual problem is they were trying to solve in the first place. And if you continually chase IT, you’ll never solve the real business problem.” Jessop goes on to say that “executive sponsorship” is just as important as the technology itself. And although he agrees that the Internet is creating great opportunities for all, he states that, “business problems today are much the same as they were five years ago. It’s still about different departments learning to talk to each other and share business processes. The Internet is merely a new delivery mechanism for this.” Discrete and process manufacturers are both obvious beneficiaries of collaborative solutions. Any business that needs to rapidly configure and customise products and which aims to streamline its supplier base should work towards best practice collaboration. And this leads to a twofold reduction: in costs (i.e. design out cost at an early stage of product development), and a reduction in time-to-market for new products. There’s no doubt that ‘deep’ collaboration is enabled by Internet technology, and that information flow is accelerated by it. But often a ‘best-of-breed’ strategy is more feasible now, with the growth in standards and interoperability software. While it could be argued that, in the longer term, single source solutions would be preferable, especially for smaller companies, ‘best-of-breed’ is nevertheless the most prevalent approach. PDM may even be starting to replace ERP as the real enterprise backbone. This trend is taking place because issues like time-to-market and globalisation are driving everybody that way. So what might the future hold? Perhaps customers will go directly to the portal of a manufacturer’s website to design their own product variant rather than purchasing a mass-produced one from a dealer. But for most UK manufacturers, this is a long way off yet.