It is a well-known fact that, for optimal performance, businesses need information from a variety of sources both within and outside of the enterprise – from the shop floor itself, from suppliers, customers and partners – and companies need that information to reach all relevant individuals easily and without delay. Little surprise then, that over the past five years, the level of activity and expenditure on IT integration has mushroomed. In fact, industry analysts frequently state that nearly 40% of all computing costs are for integration-related activity – quite startling really. So how can UK manufacturing benefit from integration and why should they bother at all? To answer this question, we need to look at the different integration scenarios that a manufacturer may be facing today. And there are basically three. The first, often referred to as ‘vertical integration’, deals with integration between business level applications (financial, enterprise resource planning systems) and factory floor systems. According to Simon Bragg of ARC, “businesses must now [if they haven’t already] take steps to get plant and machines more easily integrated - with knowledge flowing around them, between them, and then up to business level systems in ‘real time’ rather than days or weeks.” The obvious result here is that management is then able to react quickly to problems on the shop floor and make better business decisions based on what is happening now – not what happened in manufacturing three days ago. And the good news is the technology has already arrived to enable this. There are new and powerful forms of system ‘glue’ (or middleware) which are affordable to most manufacturers. Standards are also emerging which make the systems integration process faster and less painful for businesses. Already well supported by industry is Microsoft’s ‘Manufacturing.net’ - a major infrastructure software standard which embraces the underlying technology of COM and DCOM. Other ‘sensor to boardroom’ vendors capable of looking after your vertical integration interests are Rockwell Automation, Aurega (the UK arm of Siemens Automation), Intellution and IBM. In fact, Aurega has recently launched its new shop floor to top floor business modelling tool – Clarif-i. According to Aurega’s managing director, Leigh Foster: “There is currently no other business modelling tool like this on the market today.” Presumably, this refers to the fact that Clarif-i (a basic software license will cost you £15,000) not only provides users with a top-floor to shop floor business modelling tool, but also, once the modelling is complete, then automatically generates the code necessary for the execution of that model – reducing the overall implementation time considerably. In addition to vertical integration, today’s competitive environment - and the pressures businesses face with the emergence of the Internet - requires companies to access corporate data that resides in a number of different applications and databases at the business level. The challenge is to link all these disparate systems and their associated processes in order to ‘regain control over the books’. This brings us to Enterprise Application Integration (EAI). Companies need data to move in and out of legacy (homegrown) systems, or between customer relationship management (CRM) and back-end enterprise systems. Furthermore, this inevitable shift toward business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce puts an emphasis on accessing data which resides in a number of separate systems across different enterprises in a supply chain - suppliers, customers and channel partners. According to Simon Pollard, VP European research for industry analysts, AMR Research: “for manufacturing businesses, integration is about being more collaborative – this could mean between departments within a company, or between two businesses in a supply chain.” He continues: “The message is don’t just push information around the business – this information needs structure – without this, there is no data owner. This is where process mapping can help.” There are certainly many consultants and vendors out there who can help. For B2B integration and any related process mapping try any of the following: Actional, IBSS, Atos Origin, CrossWorlds, Taviz, IBM, Level 8, Webmethods, New Era of Networks, to name but a few. So which type of integration should companies attempt first? Dr. Ian Howles, marketing director EMEA SeeBeyond, advises that ‘internal integration’ should be manufacturing’s first priority: “The reality is that manufacturers should integrate within their four walls first … then begin to tackle external supply chain integration.” Howles also comments on the much-vaunted XML (extensible mark-up language) technology that can be used to ‘connect’ business level systems between different businesses, “business process management is the key here – it’s no good simply having an XML-based fax machine between you and your suppliers – you need to re-evaluate your internal processes and your suppliers’ processes … and glue them together into one mutually beneficial automated process.” So the message is clear: “get your own house in order first” before embarking on any ‘wild’ e-business projects, otherwise your manufacturing will simply not be able to support the growing expectations of customers and partners. Pollard calls this next generation of integration “business community integration” – whilst Don Futch, VP business development for US-based B2B integration vendor, IBSS, prefers to call it: “The last frontier for manufacturing!” Either way there can be no denying how critical this tool is to the prosperity of UK manufacturing.