Inforbix: Access to Enterprise Information for the Engineer?

It seems like in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a resurgence in startups in the engineering software space. Maybe it’s been necessity due to the economic recession. Maybe we’ve just had budding entrepreneurs waiting to do their thing. But with all these new startups, we’ve seen some new technologies and perspectives on engineering problems that are new and, frankly, refreshing. One of the more interesting ones at an enterprise level is Inforbix.

In the rest of this post, I’ll provide a little background, a factual look at the capabilities the product provides and then round it out with my own commentary and analysis. Stay turned for the questions at the end. I’m interested in your take.

Background

Inforbix was founded in 2010 by Oleg Shilovitsky and Anatoly Savin. Oleg worked the last 11 years working for Smart Solutions, SmarTeam, Enovia, Dassault Systems. Most recently, he was ENOVIA SmarTeam Chief Technology Officer. Inforbix was first launched in November 2011.

Capabilities Provided

Alright. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty details. What exactly does Inforbix do?

Some Context on IT Ecosystems for Product Development

Before I answer that question, let me set the context. Think about this. In product development, you literally have data and information spread everywhere. Some part characteristics might be in a table on an engineering drawing. Inventories are in ERP. Part effectivities might exist in PLM. Lists of preferred suppliers are in procurement systems. Some bills of materials are sitting in a spreadsheet on share drives. It’s ugly. It’s messy. And in many cases, it’s practically impossible to find what you need. That’s the context in which we can now answer our earlier question: what does Inforbix do?

In short, Inforbix lets any kind of user find and then use data that across that nasty mess of enterprise systems, share drives, complex deliverables and documents. Simple enough at a high level. But the next question is obvious:

How does Inforbix do it?

Well, before we can answer that question, we’ll need just a bit more context.

Some Context on Web Crawlers

Are familiar with how google and other search engines work? They use something called web crawlers. Wikipedia’s entry on web crawlers offers a far better definition than I could write, so here it is.

Web crawler is a computer program that browses the World Wide Web in a methodical, automated manner or in an orderly fashion.

This process is called Web crawling or spidering. Many sites, in particular search engines, use spidering as a means of providing up-to-date data. Web crawlers are mainly used to create a copy of all the visited pages for later processing by a search engine that will index the downloaded pages to provide fast searches. Crawlers can also be used for automating maintenance tasks on a Web site, such as checking links or validating HTML code. Also, crawlers can be used to gather specific types of information from Web pages, such as harvesting e-mail addresses (usually for sending spam).

So essentially web crawlers are constantly spidering the web, looking for new content to gather information about. They then send that information back to the search engine for which they were built. The search engine then builds out an index of all the content on the web. So when someone searches for something, the search engine just references it’s index, which is really fast performance wise, and provide results.

But actually, there’s a good bit more to it than that. You see, different kinds of web crawlers understand different kinds of information on the web. In fact, as you can see on this Google webmaster help page, Google has numerous types of web crawlers that are attuned to different kinds of media. There’s one for news articles, one for images, one for video and so on. That’s because each web crawler understand different kinds of data on the web.

Crawling Product Development Data

Given all this foreshadowing, I’m sure it’s not too hard to see where I’m going here. Yes. Inforbix uses their own crawlers to spider your product development IT ecosystem. But these aren’t like Google’s web crawlers, which are just traversing the web. Using API toolkits, Inforbix crawlers go into enterprise systems like ERP, PLM, procurement systems and others. It also has crawlers that spider your desktops and share drives. So Inforbix crawlers are unique in that they traverse enterprise systems and drives in your product development IT ecosystem.

However, there’s more complexity to this ecosystem. And Inforbix’s crawlers have to deal with it as well. You see, product development information is terribly complex. As many are probably aware, mechanical CAD models, whether they are parts, assemblies or drawings, have a huge amount of information embedded within them. What’s key is that Inforbix’s crawlers were written to understand that type of data and much more. So another away that they are unique is that they understand the huge variety of product development data.

As a proof point, take a look at Inforbix’s supported data types on their site. You can almost think of each of those as individual web crawlers.

What do the Inforbix crawlers do with this information? They communicate with Inforbix servers, which sit in the cloud, where all of that information is indexed. So the parallel so far is fairly close to how the search engine for Google works. But from there, there’s a slight divergence.

Delivering Product Development Data

Are you familiar with how Google delivers search results? Most everyone can see the textual results of a search. But if you’ve noticed, there’s also a way to look just at images, video, maps, videos, news and more. And as you might expect, the parallel applies as well to product development information. Just a little differently. Specifically, Inforbix provides search results from your product development IT ecosystem through the following lenses.

  • Textual Search
  • Charts
  • Tables

Essentially, different sets of results from your search across your product development IT ecosystem can give you information that would be easily dropped into charts or tables. And Inforbix lets you do that. However, Inforbix calls them apps. But furthermore, you can create a dashboard of different combinations of text, chart or table based search results which you can save to reference again and again.

Making Changes

One last note. As opposed to search results from Google, Inforbix search results let users actually make some changes when they have access rights. So you can not only look up information in a table, but you can actually make modifications as well instead of making you open the deliverable and manually make the change.

Commentary and Analysis

Now we understand what it does. So what? What’s its value? Let’s take a look at that.

Enabling the Engineer

Some time ago, I published a post titled What is the Killer App for the Modern Engineer? In it, I outlined a major challenge I saw in an engineer’s day-to-day job in taking many enterprise considerations into account when making design decisions. Here’s the most relevant excerpt.

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.

In the past, I’ve seen mashups as the solution for that problem. But as it turns out, it’s not the only solution to that problem. In fact, this type of search across the product development IT ecosystem is incredibly powerful. In some cases it is more powerful than mashups. Why? Because mashups are frequently focused on looking into enterprise systems. And in my experience, most engineers do most of their work in documents, spreadsheets and presentations. This is a critical aspect that Inforbix has integrated into this support ecosystem.

Supporting the Granularity Approach

Another aspect of Inforbix that is beneficial is its ease to slide into practically any product development IT ecosystem. It can literally plug and play with a wide variety of different enterprise systems because of its long list of crawlers. Why is that a big deal? Because it can be deployed fairly quickly and easily. It can start making an impact for an organization quickly. This stands in contrast to big box PLM systems that take years to go live. All of this points back to the concept of granularity, which I wrote about in a post titled Point Solutions, Integrated Solutions and the Granularity Value Proposition, but has been touched on many times in the industry.

The Positives I see

What’s my bottom line? I have two main thoughts.

Here’s my first thought. As much as I wish it weren’t true, product development is chaotic and messy. You hope most of your stuff gets into an enterprise system during the design phase, but in reality most organizations mandate that all released representations of designs get stuffed somewhere. And all that other work-in-process stuff gets left on desktops and shared drives. Inforbix helps address that reality with an interesting approach: leave it there, we’ll index it and let you find it easily when you need it.

My second thought is about the reality of today’s engineer. They are pulled in so many different directions, rushing from conference room, to shop floor, to prototype shop, to test lab and supplier’s campuses that at the end of the day, they’re just trying to make the right design decision. They have neither the time nor the effort to make sure everything is perfectly organized, whether that be in an enterprise system or their shared drive. Inforbix helps in that regard by organizing it for them in a virtual manner. But probably more importantly, when engineers need to make important decisions, they don’t need to waste time trying to track the information or data down. Let’s be honest. Spending hours searching for information is not how engineers add value. Inforbix helps minimize that wasted time by deliver the right information with minimal effort.

My One Little Nit

How would I make it better?

If you’ve been reading this blog, you’ve probably seen my series on the engineering notebook. My position is that, essentially, the engineering notebook has been left behind my technology. I think something like Inforbix embedded in a virtual notebook alongside notes (like Evernote), sketches (maybe Sketchup) as well as some calculation tools (like MathCAD perhaps) would be incredibly powerful. And Inforbix would allow for a dynamic updateable view info all of the information that is relevant to an engineer.

Conclusions and Questions

It took quite a bit to explain what Inforbix does and how it does it. Let’s recap.

  • Product development information and data that you want to find and reuse are spread out across different enterprise systems, desktops and shared drives.
  • Google and other search engines use something called web crawlers to traverse and index web content.
  • Inforbix has crawlers that understand how to interact with everything in the product development IT ecosystem. They also understand how to mine and index complex product development data.
  • Inforbix delivers results through ‘apps’ that drop results into text, chart or table type formats. Different kinds of results can be combined into dashboards which can be saved and reused for later reference.
  • I believe Inforbix can aid today’s engineers by letting them find product development data and information quickly and easily without forcing them to organize it with time-consuming manual effort.
  • I also believe that Inforbix supports a granular approach to the entire product development IT ecosystem. It can be easily integrated into existing ecosystems.
  • My preference would be to see this kind of functionality as part of an engineering notebook alongside note taking, sketching and calculation tools.

So there you have it. Those are my thoughts on Inforbix. Now its time for you to weigh in. How many different enterprise systems do you have in your organization or have you seen in others? Can you tell me about your or other’s experience in trying to find and reuse product data and information that is spread across the ecosystem? Would love to hear your thoughts.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

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