.Net for manufacturing

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.NET in manufacturing: The Challenges

Until the last decade of the twentieth century, manufacturing has remained largely unchanged since the early days of the industrial revolution. Goods need to be developed that meet or exceed customer demand. This requires a dependable supply of raw materials and components at the best value for money breakpoint. Goods need then to be made in the most cost-and time-efficient manner, with the right goods getting to the right place at the right time. Manufacturing competitiveness has depended on the degree to which a manufacturer excels at each stage over and above its competition.

 

However, the last decade of the twentieth century has seen massive changes in the wider business context, largely driven by technology, which together have significantly influenced the manufacturing process. Manufacturers have increasingly needed to become agile in order to respond to the increasing rate of change in customers, competition and an ever more global and connected economy. They have looked to lower their costs by moving production to the developing world while maintaining the design and final assembly in the developed countries. At the same time, manufacturers have started to specialise. These two changes have led to the concept of the virtual company with a complex mix of suppliers and partners working together to share risks and production with manufacturers competing more on the basis of their overall supply chain as opposed to their in-house resources. Where historically manufacturers felt a benefit from controlling more of the supply chain directly (consider Henry Ford) the nature of control has shifted to predictability and influence while encouraging suppliers to focus on and elevate their speciality.

 

The increased importance of the supply chain has exposed the key IT weakness: an inability to communicate between different companies using different legacy systems. This lack of interoperability has traditionally been approached in two different ways. The first is the more established and is by means of costly, inflexible bespoke middleware solutions that can take months to deliver. The second is a more recent development whereby software vendors develop point solutionscommunication routes to preferred third party specialist software applications. This however still places restrictions on manufacturers in terms of restricting their potential agility to respond to any customer or market changes requiring a different tool.

 

.NET in manufacturing: Web servicesa brave new world?

Web services have been developed precisely to deliver this required interoperability. The power of Web services lies not in what they are, but in what they deliver. In essence, they are discrete business services implemented as software black boxes with defined interfaces that interoperate, based on agreed protocols (XML), across platforms and programming languages. By unlocking information in existing systems, linking varied applications to automate and orchestrate business processes within an organisation or increasingly, a virtual organisation, Web services provide a genuine interoperability technology solution that enables the easy implementation of loose coupling with customer, partner and suppliers. .NET represents Microsofts offering for web services to connect people, information, systems and devices.

 

.NET in manufacturing: The future is now?
Simon Holloway is a Manufacturing Specialist with Microsoft and works with larger enterprise level manufacturers. Clyde Bennett is also a Manufacturing Specialist but for Microsoft Business Solutions and works with small to medium-size enterprises (SME). Together they briefly describe the way .NET is already changing the way some manufacturers can respond to the challenges of modern manufacturing.

 

It is a common misconception that all manufacturers do is make things, says Bennett. The physical manufacturing of goods is just one element of a much more complex business. Every stage in a typical manufacturing business can benefit from .NETfrom interacting with suppliers and customers to controlling the manufacturing processes themselves. He cites some examples: For example, in a supply chain context, Volkswagens Brazilian production operation manages its supply chain with a .NET based solution that allows for tighter integration with vendors and reduces stoppages of its production lines caused by the lack of critical parts. The expected ROI is 1 million Reals per year. At a sales and support level, .NET connected software is helping Xerox Global Services technicians via the use of hand held computers and wireless connections to access the central database. This replaced an error-prone paper based system, and eliminates duplicate data entry.

 

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Holloway focuses on the benefits at a programming and development level. It is accepted wisdom that IT delivers best results when it fits as closely as possible to the underlying business processes of a company. .NET makes this process easier, quicker and more accessible to companies of all sizes. For example, when used in conjunction with Microsoft Business Framework, business application engineers can fine-tune a system much faster by using a library of high reuse objects. These libraries will be available to other programmers, which removes any requirement to re-invent the wheel for each specific application. Manufacturers therefore will have maximum flexibility in the range of .NET enabled systems they can interoperate withfreeing them from restrictions associated with immovable point solutions. This is essential when you consider that companies in a typical supply change range from Enterprise level down to the SME. By opening up the range of partner solutions that can interconnect via .NET, the low end of the SME manufacturing with considerably reduced resources and budget has the same opportunities to interoperate with the supply chain as Enterprise level companies. Each company in the supply chain can then focus on what it needs to do bestproviding competitive advantagewithout having to worry about the IT implications as a barrier to entry.

 

While barely scratching the surface of how .NET is already impacting manufacturing and how it will do so in the future, one thing is clear .NET enabled solutions seem to be here to stay, as also does the requirement for ever-increasing and easily accessible interoperability between manufacturers within a supply chain context. How manufacturers make best use of this happy coincidence will be entirely up to them.

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