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KM streamlines the manufacturing process

When it comes to sharing data, manufacturers are taking charge of information dissemination through the use of knowledge management systems.

Manufacturing is becoming a more collaborative effort than ever before. Manufacturers are relying heavily on subcontractors to produce components for their end products. They're working closely with suppliers and customers to perfect designs of new products before they go into production. And they’re looking for ways to improve the process of building and buying goods in a virtual manufacturing environment. The goal is to improve customer responsiveness and reduce the cost of goods while performing as many transactions online as possible.

All of that collaboration requires sharing data on the fly to ensure that everyone involved in the project is working with up-to-date information. By relying on the Internet, the information is available to all of the partners simultaneously.

Knowledge management also helps to provide a history of each project as it reaches fulfillment. Manufacturers that take advantage of KM systems are finding they can replicate their successes by viewing the documentation of past projects. In addition, if people are brought onto a project in midstream, they can get up to speed quickly.

"It's all about capturing as much knowledge as possible," says Carol Schrader, VP of worldwide marketing for Agile Software. "We're seeing a move to a more outsourced manufacturing environment. That means there is a more focused effort on sharing data within the organization as well as outside the organization."

The ability to provide secure access to outside partners is key to the increased use of Internet-based knowledge management systems, Schrader says.

"We're seeing manufacturers deploying new technology more rapidly and working closely with partners outside the four walls. They're looking to shrink product cycles and become more responsive to requests," she adds.

"Manufacturing companies have probably optimized the actual manufacturing piece of their business," says Cliff Stockley, VP of client services for Framework Technologies. "Knowledge management is key to improving productivity. Manufacturers still want to compress the cycle time further. They're looking for ways to reduce the time from initial order. The burning question is how quickly can I get my product to the customer.” And the way to do that is to streamline the flow of data.

"As more and more steps in the manufacturing process are outsourced, the challenge is how can I work my design process and design environment to take into account my contract manufacturers,” Stockley continues. “Think of a car. Ford or Chrysler make very few of the individual parts that make up the car. They have suppliers of brake systems, cooling systems, almost all of the components."

The exchange of design information is especially crucial, and KM systems are helping to smooth the transmission of that type of data, and transmitting files via e-mail can be unwieldy.

"E-mail files of this type can be large," says Jim Krueger, director of product development for Pemco, a Körber Group company. "We're part of a large multinational company. We need to consolidate information and make it available to all project team members. We need to share information with our sister companies and outside vendors.

"We're seeing a trend to outsourcing of product design. We need a place where we can concentrate all answers to questions about all product design standards, materials, drawings and formats.”

Pemco is using a Web-based program management and communication system from Framework Technologies. The tracking tools associated with KM systems are essential to building a database of information, Krueger says. Prior to using Frameworks' ActiveProject system, communication within Pemco on project objectives and progress was not very effective, according to Krueger. "Keeping people informed required multiple update meetings, presentations and travel,” he says.

Documenting communication regarding a project is essential, Krueger adds. "An exchange involving phone calls is good, but you can't track it. E-mails seem to be something you never can recover when you need them. Through the use of tracking tools we can have the question, the answer, the answer to the answer all documented," he says.

Tracking historical data is also important for gaining certification, such as that required for the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

"For manufacturers, part of their ISO verification depends on documenting and following particular procedures," says Stockley. "If all the information is kept in a central repository, users always get the latest piece of information."

"As an ISO 9001 company, we have procedures for product development that must be followed," Krueger says. "We chose ActiveProject because it solved our short-term and long-term documentation requirements. It provides the up-to-the-minute access to project information that our team members need today. It also captures all of the communications and documentation that comprise a project, enabling us to archive and reproduce a complete, accurate record of that project anytime in the future."

For KM tools to be useful in a manufacturing environment, you need to make sure their use is mandatory, according to Krueger. "All communication relevant to the project has to come through the Web site. Put as much information as possible up at the beginning. Put up all relevant data that will be required by everyone involved in the project,” he says. “This will help to prevent people from getting phone calls from four or five different people, all asking the same questions."

The KM system also ensures that everyone gets consistent information. "Basically, what happens is that when a person is part of the project team, they sign up to receive notification of changes. When those changes are posted, they get an e-mail notification," Krueger says. A reduction in production errors can result in quick payback of the investment in KM technology, says Framework Technologies' Stockley.

"Manufacturers are able to involve other departments and suppliers much earlier in the process," he says. "Because it is Web-based, it doesn't need software on the client side. Users can very quickly add customers, suppliers, partners to Web site. The moment the manufacturer makes a decision to launch a new product, they can go right to the Web site and get their partners.”

Building knowledge for future projects is also essential. Stockley says, “As you gather more and more data you have a greater knowledgebase to draw from. When you start a new project you can take a look at past projects and ask 'Have we done this before? If so, what kinds of issues did we face and how did we solve them?’ "

Virtual agility While many manufacturers oversee their own Web-based knowledge management systems, some vendors such as G5 Technologies manage virtual manufacturing communities. G5 uses its own business process to pool the capabilities of existing companies into virtual corporations established specifically to fulfill a contract or project. Those virtual corporations, called Agile Virtual Enterprises, are legally defined corporations, owned by participating companies and bound together through G5 e-commerce technology.

"Very few manufacturers can fulfill on all the attributes needed to produce a complex industrial product," says G5's CEO Brian Adams. "Many try to work in concert with other manufacturers. But few really know how to do it, and even fewer have the know-how to market their combined resources to potential customers.”.

G5 is helping Dirigo Energy secure financing and establish a network of Agile Virtual Enterprises to produce its product--prefabricated electric and thermal units--in locations nationwide. G5 Technologies oversees the logistics of final assembly, testing and delivery of the prefabricated components, leaving Dirigo to focus on its core competencies of sales and client service.

And the collaboration doesn't end with the manufacturing process.E.piphany has announced new applications to support collaborative marketing, and sales and service initiatives between manufacturers, channel distribution partners and retailers. Its Demand Chain Solutions enables those parties to obtain a shared, single view of customer information to drive more intelligent interactions with customers and among partners.

"[The technology] allows businesses to increase revenue by taking action to create real-time, collaborative marketing, sales and service experiences," says Paul Rodwick, VP of market development and strategy for E.piphany.

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 609-448-7509, e-mail kimzimmermann@home.com

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