It’s no easy task being an engineer today. While designing a product you have to take into account a huge variety of information like costs, inventory, preferred suppliers and much more in addition to form, fit and function. We talked at length about it during the Enabling Engineering Decisions panel discussion at the Collaboration and Interoperability Congress (CIC) which I previewed a few weeks ago. And in a post at the beginning of the year I suggested that using Mashups on top of 3D visualization technologies might be a good approach as a solution. When I had heard that’s exactly what Actify had done with their new release of Centro in April, I tracked down Dave Opsahl to get some insight on exactly what it could do.
Founded in 1996, Actify has traditionally provided a software application called Spinfire to access 2D and 3D design data in just about any format. In April of this year, Actify released a new product called Centro (press release). Detailed information on this new product can be found at the Centro product page on the Actify site.
So what exactly does Centro do? That’s where the story is tied into Microsoft’s SharePoint. Centro is composed of a number of web services that create something called web parts, which are also called web widgets per the wikipedia entry, that show up in SharePoint. Specifically Centro adds several new pieces of functionality in the form of these web parts to SharePoint. Here’s the rundown of what it does.
- Integration with Enterprise Systems: Centro provides the ability to connect with systems like ERP, SCM, PLM, PDM and the like. However it can also connect with databases and spreadsheets. This could really be information from any enterprise system that you might have. That information can ‘live’ in SharePoint and be accessed centrally. In this way, it enables SharePoint to act much like a Mashup (wikipedia entry).
- Cross Enterprise System Search: Centro offers a search functionality that can go into each of the enterprise systems and perform a search, providing a single aggregated set of results.
- 3D Visualization: Centro also provides a box within SharePoint where you can visualize a 3D model. You can do all the things you would expect like zoom, spin and the like.
- Enterprise Information on top of 3D Visualization: Centro then provides the ability to overlay that information from enterprise systems on top of the 3D visualization where the user can access it. Furthermore, the 3D model can then be conditionally colored based on the enterprise system. The user can interact with the enterprise information overlaid on the 3D model from there.
All in all, this is pretty much a 3D mashup. Actify folks call it cross application browsing.
Analysis and Commentary
So information from multiple enterprise systems can be laid on top of a 3D model and then interrogated interactively. So what? Well, it is interested on a couple different levels. First, let’s talk about what it means for the everyday engineer.
An Engineer’s Reality
To set some context, let’s me revisit a previous post specifically about how engineers make design decisions based on enterprise level information. This excerpt comes from that post I referenced earlier titled What is the Killer App for the Modern Engineer?
Another extremely challenging aspect of an engineer’s job is dealing with all of the enterprise systems across a product’s lifecycle. Most likely, design artifacts are managed within PDM or PLM. Released product records exist in Enterprise Resource and Planning (ERP) systems. Individual supplier and supply chain network information is captured in Supplier Relationship Management (SRM) and Supply Chain Management (SCM) systems. Customer data resides in a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system. The list could go on and on. The important point though is that the engineer needs to access information in any and all of these systems to lead the day-to-day company wide effort to resolve product issues. The frequent means to doing that is to go find someone with access or have the engineer maintain 10 different login identities, which is unreasonable.
And let’s admit to reality here. An engineer won’t maintain a list of 10 different logins. Neither does anyone else from any other organization. Not just engineers. They will get a proxy who will go and retrieve that information for them. Now of course, that person can’t do this all day every day. No engineering organization can afford that sort of headcount today. So instead they run a report once a week. And of course that means that for the majority of the week, the engineer who is making design decisions is looking at information that is probably outdated in some form or matter. Ultimately that defeats the purpose doesn’t it?
Centro from Actify provides a solution to this scenario in that it offers real-time access to information across all of the enterprise systems in the right context: the 3D model. The implication is that better decisions are made because the engineer is looking at the right information. That could lead to higher performing products, shorter time to market and a host of other benefits.
Supporting the Granularity Approach to PLM
Another interesting aspect of Actify’s approach is how it supports an alternative PLM strategy. As I am sure many of you are aware, most large PLM providers offer a big box approach where a single suite of software covers almost every need of a manufacturer. And while there are advantages and benefits in working with one software provider and one software system, there are some potential risks as well. Specifically that large implementations can take significant time and bigger budget to deploy.
Alternatively, some manufacturers are taking a more granular approach where they are leaving existing PDM and other systems in place to layer and integrate other technologies on top of them. This is an approach that works well with the Actify Centro and Microsoft SharePoint systems. Instead of ripping and replacing existing systems, you can leave them exactly where they sit right now and build on top of them.
Overall, it depends on what strategy makes most sense for you. But for those that have been scarred by past big box PLM experiences, the granularity approach carries far less risk and is far more appealing.
But It’s Not All Roses
There certainly are some positives about the Actify Centro and Microsoft SharePoint approach. But it isn’t perfect. Just about every manufacturer has a large number of enterprise systems, databases and spreadsheets sitting around various organizations. And each enterprise system and database gets upgraded to new versions of software from time to time. In aggregate, every manufacturer has a configuration of different versions of enterprise systems and databases to maintain.
Actify’s Centro offers web services to integrate to these systems and databases. But as those enterprise systems are upgraded, then Centro’s web services need to be checked to ensure they are still working and fixed if they are not. Some resources will be needed to maintain and plan out the integrations on a go forward basis. Is that a resource that comes from the corporate IT team? Does the resource come from the engineering IT team? Is it an engineer doing it on the side? Obviously there needs some planning.
Conclusions and Questions
Through web services, Actify’s Centro adds several new pieces of functionality to Microsoft’s SharePoint including integration with enterprise systems, cross enterprise system search, 3D visualization and the overlay of enterprise information on top of 3D visualization. In short, it is a 3D mashup. It offers a far more realistic and advantageous means for engineers to access enterprise information in the context of the design. It also supports a more granular approach to PLM. However resources will be needed to maintain those integrations as enterprise systems are upgraded.
Now it’s your turn to sound off. What enterprise information do you use to make engineering decisions? How do you get that information today? Do you use a proxy? What would real-time access to that information mean for you? Sound off and let us know what you think.
Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.