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The Internet, Java and the Auto Industry

By Stew BlockTo improve product quality and customer service, automakers recognize the need to forge flexible global supply chains.

By Stew Block

To improve product quality and customer service, automakers recognize the need to forge flexible global supply chains. The walls of their enterprises must be expanded—"virtual enterprises" created—to link them more tightly to their customers and suppliers.

Thus the automotive industry is undergoing a fundamental transition of unparalleled size and scope. Automakers increasingly are out-sourcing the component design and manufacturing process to their suppliers. At the same time, they are paring down their supplier base to a manageable number.

In the process, highly structured supply chains are being forged, in which automakers work directly with Tier-1 suppliers having responsibility for the design and development of major sub-assemblies, and these Tier-1 suppliers, in turn, assist their suppliers in the design and development of components that go into the sub-assemblies. The result is a major realignment of the automotive industry.

This realignment or restructuring has been seriously impeded to date by a lack of the information systems infrastructure needed to support it. To create tighter linkages between automakers and their suppliers and customers, their business processes up and down the supply chain must become more tightly interlinked. Business process flow must be synchronized between the OEMs and their suppliers to meet the demands of just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing and the pressure to get products to market faster.

 

Inter-enterprise process flow is key 


Until the recent emergence of the Internet's commercial Worldwide Web (WWW) and the Java application development platform, however, the pressing need for inter-enterprise process flow could not be adequately addressed. It is true that ERP vendors now are providing simplified Internet browser access to their applications, allowing anyone anywhere to access information about their customers or suppliers over a company's internal "intranet" or the public Internet. In some cases, users even can place orders with their suppliers over the Web. But although it provides remote data access, the browser-based access hasn't solved the problem of inter-enterprise process flow. In the industry as a whole, the enterprise applications software architecture needed to support it is lacking. Major enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications for the automotive industry support process flow within the enterprise, for example, but they do not provide an off-the-shelf solution yet for the coordination of process flow across enterprise boundaries.

Two major trends thus are converging. Automotive companies, to a large extent, have accepted Internet technology as a way to communicate across their supply chains; now they are looking for off-the-shelf supply chain management (SCM) applications that will enable them to manage process flow across enterprise boundaries over the Internet in a much more proactive and collaborative way.

 

An application architecture for "virtual enterprise" management

A new open application architecture, or framework, based on Internet-enabled application development technologies such as Java, is needed to address these converging trends. The purpose of the new architecture will be to enable inter-enterprise process flow to be synchronized on a global basis up and down a private intranet-or public Internet-based supply chain. The architecture will comprise both existing ERP applications and distributed, networked enterprise SCM applications components. Suppliers will install these off-the-shelf components on their systems, and those of their customers, to enable all the information systems (including currently installed ERP systems) supporting the supply chain to "talk the same language." Only by this means will all supply chain participants be able to interact with each other more effectively and to synchronize a global automotive supply chain.

 

Why Java?

Java should prove the ideal open application development platform for this purpose because the technology required must be object-oriented, support a distributed environment, run effectively on the Internet, and support multiple databases—all Java strengths.

As a result, Baan, a leading ERP vendor, announced last fall that it will partner with Sun to extend the Java platform for the development of distributed, networked enterprise applications. The agreement between the two companies will accelerate the delivery of large-scale Internet application functionality written entirely using Java technology. This includes the development of an easy, object-oriented means of accessing legacy data in databases on heterogeneous computer platforms—a critical requirement to develop inter-enterprise process flow enabling components that can interact with existing systems. The open applications architecture thus will help automotive OEMs to manage the process flow across their suppliers and customers more proactively by extending their current applications into the realm of the "virtual enterprise."

 

New trends in network computing

There has been much talk in the press about the advent of "network computers"inexpensive, very low-maintenance devices that take advantage of Java-enabled browsers and provide access to critical corporate data over the Internet and intranets. These devices will play a major role in the automotive industry's open applications environment envisioned above. In time, these devices will supplant out-dated 3270 mainframe terminals as well as personal computers in ways that are only dimly glimpsed or even undreamt of now. A current example will have to suffice to point the way to the future of these network computers.

A project is currently underway at one major automaker to provide Java-enabled devices to the service centers in its dealerships throughout the U.S. The purpose is to facilitate the distribution and updating of its maintenance manuals by providing a more functional, cost-effective electronic alternative to the traditional "hardcopy." When maintenance manual pages get smeared with grease and become illegible, they can easily be replaced by accessing and printing them right off the Web.

 

Toward increased customer satisfaction

The development of a Java-based open application architecture will enable the significant improvement of four processes critical to automotive industry success:

  1. product design cycle
  2. sourcing
  3. collaborative planning
  4. electronic data interchange (EDI).

These key processes will be optimized by the inter-enterprise process flow and supply chain synchronization enabled by the emerging architecture. The results will be better automotive products and servicesand more satisfied customers.

 

See It. Hear It. Mark It Up. In Cyberspace.

"The Internet has given us the first transparent network for communications regardless of the computing platform," says Rishi Madabusi of IBM. "Now there is a common way of looking at text and graphics."

Which can make the work of design engineers and manufacturing engineers somewhat easier, he goes on to explain, referencing one of the new features found in CATIA v. 4.1.7 from Dassault Systemes and IBM. It is called Conferencing Groupware. It was developed with technology from InSoft/Netscape (yes, that's as in Netscape the browser company).

This product allows users—regardless of where they are located—to interactively work on a CATIA model in real time. This can be configured to provide a full-blown multimedia capability: text, CAD model, audio, video. It permits real-time viewing and even annotating and modifying. To get total capabilities, users need to employ a UNIX workstation. To be sure, the RS6000 from IBM is one possibility. But Conferencing Groupware also runs on boxes from Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics and Sun. Users of PCs can get in, but not have the full functionality.

"The Internet provides a standard and accepted way of viewing and manipulating data. So we are focusing on providing value on top of it," says Madabusi.GSV

 

More Convenient Meetings

Ideally, you call a meeting and everyone shows up at the appointed time and place.

Realistically, not all meeting times and places are doable for all participants.

If you have a CAD design that needs multiple inputs, why not try the Internet as a means to get the required responses? Think of it as an asynchronous meeting.

That's the notion behind a module developed for the Look>>In CAD conferencing software from C-TAD Systems (Ann Arbor), which generates VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) from a variety of CAD systems (e.g., PDGS and CATIA).

According to Brian Kuttner, C-TAD president, the approach that people can take is to create a "slide show of a part." That is, start with a CAD model. Then create individual shots of the 3D image. Mark them up with annotations. Then send them to the necessary people just like an e-mail message. (In fact, so "just like," they are an e-mail.) The module permits viewing of these images through Netscape Navigator and other browsers, so the recipients (assuming they're at all familiar with the `Net) don't have to learn new operations.

Kuttner admits that plenty of CAD companies are providing VRML capabilities in their CAD packages. "But our target with this product are the process and manufacturing engineers who are working with a PCa 386 or a 486 running Windows 3.1—rather than designers with UNIX or NT workstations."GSV

 

Fast Access

"The sooner companies can get consumer information, the better off they are going to be," observes Gary T. Carrington, director, Automotive Industry Consulting Group, Coopers & Lybrand Consulting (Detroit). So, he explains, to the extent that the Internet facilitates access to this information, then it is a valuable tool for purposes of design and planning within the auto community, not just at the OE level, but for suppliers, as well. "Companies need to be lean and agile. Fast access to information can help them."

In fact, Carrington suggests that the companies that can really get a competitive boost from fast information access is the lower-tier suppliers. The reason: there can be a time lag if there is a dependence on getting information from their customers, who have received information from their customers. If they can tap right in, then they can be ahead of the game. If they can determine what customer preferences are, say, in terms of features in seats, and if they can design the types of mechanisms that provide those features and develop the manufacturing capacity to produce them, then they can be ahead of the curve rather than waiting. Carrington cautions, however, that forecasts are forecasts: If they pan out, that's good. Otherwise, the people may be out of luck.

Carrington admits that in terms of using electronic information tools, many companies in the supply base haven't even started. "There are lots of tier 2, 3 and 4 suppliers that aren't doing EDI yet," he says. It may be that they will have to leap frog their way to the Internet.

He is convinced, however, that things will change as more computer-comfortable people enter the community.GSV