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Emerging Business-to-Business Process Automation

A look at how portals are currently employed in the auto industry gives an appreciation for the significant steps that must be taken before business-to-business process automation can occur.

A look at how portals are currently employed in the auto industry gives an appreciation for the significant steps that must be taken before business-to-business process automation can occur. Most business-to-business transactions today have a human at one end and a Web site at the other. (An exception is EDI, but that technology is slowly being phased out.) In a typical portal activity today, a production clerk at a supplier company checks its customer’s web site for inventory levels. The production clerk then manually enters data into the supplier’s own scheduling system. Very desirable, however, is for an entire string of interactions to occur automatically. This is sometimes known as “workflow.” A hub manufacturer emails a supplier immediately when a quality problem is detected. Sending the email alone does assure that the supplier fixes the problem. Indeed, sending the email offers no assurances that the email is even read.

One company that is using technology to gain some assurance of things being read is the transmission manufacturer, ZF Batavia. Assume that the initial contact at its supplier does not respond. ZF Batavia’s supplier portal automatically starts escalating emails through the supplier organization until the quality problem is addressed. ZF Batavia uses SAP for its supplier portal software. Tomorrow’s automated business processes will routinely exceed even this example. They will have far more interactivity and involvement of legacy applications and databases at both ends than in this example.

Such workflow is not a new concept. How-ever, to date it has been done mainly within the four walls of one company. Even more narrowly, most often it’s done just within one application. This typically is in the firm’s enterprise resource planning (ERP) system or a product data management (PDM) system. Custom building “workflow” so two or more companies can inter-operate typically has been prohibitively expensive. It can also be a maintenance nightmare.

The lure of the Internet, however, has unleashed renewed interest in automating business-to-business processes. Unfortunately, the world is littered with past, pre-Internet attempts at such undertakings. Examples have included highly touted standards such as CORBA and DCE. Various services and products were also expected to do the magic here. Examples include the dot-com era, industry exchanges and supply-chain management (SCM) programs.

Few companies have succeeded in achieving substantial workflows across their supply chains. Those that have are stellar successes in their industries, such as Dell and Wal-Mart. Replicating the business-to-business processes of Dell and Wal-Mart hasn’t been a cakewalk, however. Fortunately, some standards are getting “traction” in the business-to-business process automation area. These aim to standardize much of the underlying infrastructure as well as process/data definitions. An example of the latter is “parts order.”

Three standards now receiving broader acceptance are:

  • UDDI: Universal Description, Discovery, and Integration
  • WSDL: Web Services Description Language
  • SOAP: Simple Object Access Protocol
These go well beyond HTML (Hypertext Markup Language) that centers on delivering content to human viewers. However, far more standardization is necessary to have two companies easily and quickly marry their computer systems. As usual, the auto industry has a potpourri of “standards” in the works. Some are driven by industry groups and others by the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Active in establishing standard, XML-type libraries are:

  • AIAG: Automotive Industry Action Group
  • STAR: Standards for Technology in Automotive Retail
  • OAGI: Open Applications Group, Inc.

The OEMs, however, are each planning somewhat different approaches to the next wave of Web services. This is likely to cause at least some headaches to suppliers that must deal with multiple OEMs. For instance, Ford Motor is betting on “Web Services” based on the WS-I Profiles. Spearheading Web Services is the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C, see www.w3.org). For its future direction, General Motors selected ebXML. At the same time, computer vendors also aim to define tomorrow’s standards. These include Microsoft with its .NET platform. Above the infrastructure layer are application vendors that also hope to capture and influence tomorrow’s business-to-business market. These include EDS via its e-VIS suite. This software aims to help multiple companies collaborate on product development. Meanwhile spending is booming on portal software itself such as from BEA Systems (San Jose, CA). International Data Corporation estimated that corporations spent $650 million on portal software in 2002.

In this rapidly changing world it is essential for manufacturers to correctly anticipate the path that portals are taking. Close contact with trading-partner, information-systems departments as well as industry groups is extremely helpful. Only in this way can a manufacturer avoid very costly or rush projects necessary to stay in step with the industry and its customers.

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