New real-time computing technologies can link manufacturing plants with other divisions of the company — and help stave off supply-chain disasters.

During the past decade, corporations have put immense amounts of cash and effort into IT projects with alphabet-soup acronyms, like enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply-chain management (SCM), and customer relationship management (CRM) systems. What these projects have in common, apart from the acronyms, is an attempt to consolidate lots of data about business operations so that executives can make quick and accurate decisions.

The only problem is that these systems often lack reliable, timely connections to the business “on the ground,” where work actually gets done. In manufacturing, the situation is particularly acute. The best ERP software, for example, can predict a factory’s output capacity and try to synchronize it with demand, but it doesn’t know what’s going on in factories from day to day. For that, companies need real-time application integration software.

Corning Specialty Materials, based in Corning, N.Y., is a good case study. The company has four factories, generating about $350 million in annual sales, that produce glass used in semiconductor manufacturing. Its customers grind the glass into precision lenses for “steppers,” machines that etch the tiny circuits onto microchips. The glass has to meet rigorous specifications, or the steppers’ lasers won’t be accurate enough.

These exacting standards mean that Corning needs an unusually high level of control over its manufacturing processes. To make that happen, the company relies on real-time application integration technology from Camstar to tie together its four factories into a single “virtual factory,” with a central database that allows all four plants to share information and resources.

Because this virtual factory system is integrated with ERP software, from PeopleSoft (PSFT), Corning executives can keep an eye on manufacturing and provide customers with the production data they demand. For instance, salespeople can predict how long it will take to fulfill an order based on available production capacity. And when they enter new orders on their desktop PCs, the software automatically passes the information through the Camstar system to manufacturing, so production begins immediately.

Corning division CIO Doug Anderson hopes that this real-time integration will give Corning a competitive edge. “If we’re the best at turning a customer request around and getting it produced and out the door, then we become the ones they call [on],” he says.

Equally important is that Corning’s system makes the entire production process more efficient. For instance, one factory might have more raw glass than it can easily finish, while another factory has idle capacity. “Physically, it’s not a problem to airfreight the glass from one factory to another,” Anderson says. “The problem was, How are we going to move all this critical data, and get it out of one system, reformat it, and get it into another system?” With a single, shared manufacturing system, it’s a question of keystrokes.

Camstar is not alone in this market — other vendors of so-called manufacturing execution systems include iBASEt and Manex. For the most part, these systems are needed only by companies with extremely demanding production processes, such as makers of electronic equipment, medical devices, and aerospace products.

If your company is not in one of those categories, you can still benefit from this kind of tightly integrated production through the use of Web services. Integrated Web services are business applications that share data with other applications over the Internet — say, an invoicing system that links up to an accounting program. If they have standard, consistent interfaces, such Web services can greatly simplify the process of integrating applications throughout a company. That’s why a host of technology companies are piling on the Web services bandwagon: Microsoft’s (MSFT) .Net, Sun Microsystems’s (SUNW) Sun ONE, Oracle’s (ORCL) Dynamic Services, and Hewlett-Packard’s (HWP) E-Speak are all attempts to define a series of standards by which Web services can exchange information with one another, using XML as the foundation.

As Web services become more commonplace, it will get easier and easier for companies to link up their enterprise systems with the production processes where work actually gets done. And that, in time, will bring executives ever closer to the ideal of “real-time enterprise computing,” where the data on the CEO’s screen reflects the company’s actual condition at that very minute. That, in turn, will make companies better able to respond rapidly to changing market conditions — and that’s a very timely thing indeed.

Link: What’s Going On Down at the Plant?

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