Collaboration Proliferates as Companies Go Global

In October of 2005, U.S. Gypsum Corp. began a plant optimization rollout across 50 manufacturing sites that produce gypsum wall board.

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The goal was to unify its plants on one instance of Oracle ERP (enterprise resource planning) and offer visibility across all sites. “We wanted to make sure you could go to any plant and the processes would be exactly the same,” says Nat Parameswaran, director of business solutions in supply chain and e-business systems at Chicago-based U.S. Gypsum. “Even before we started the implementation, we did a process standardization across all plants.”

Collaboration was crucial in creating visibility across this network of plants that produce 350 square miles of wall board each year. “We used overall high-level collaboration to make sure each plant had visibility into every other plant,” says Parameswaran. “Our global collaboration allows us to do textbook optimization. When we make a promise to our customer, we can keep it because of the visibility.” The collaboration includes plant-to-plant visibility as well as plant-to-suppliers and plant-to-customers.

The company uses metrics to determine which plants are using the best processes. Those processes are then shared to bring all plants up to the top standards. “The goal of the collaboration is to share best-in-class processes and cross-train managers between plants,” Parameswaran explains. “The learning curve is very straightforward, and Oracle is the fabric that allows us to share plant processes and metrics.”

The plant programmable logic controller (PLC) data feeds directly into U.S. Gypsum's ERP system from Oracle, the Redwood Shores, Calif.-based enterprise software provider. U.S. Gypsum uses its one instance of Oracle, so all plant managers have visibility into the metrics of each plant. “We’re very automated. Most of our manufacturing systems are run by PLCs,” says Parameswaran. The PLCs push data into Oracle every 15 minutes, which lets us know how much final assembly we have.”

As well as being able to optimize plants on best practices, the collaborative visibility also lets the company turn on a dime during an emergency. “During the San Diego fire, a plant was disrupted, but we could move plant capacity,” says Parameswaran. “During Hurricane Katrina, the New Orleans plant was shut down for a few days, and we shifted capacity then as well.”

Reasons to Share

 Even though there are clear benefits in sharing data across scores of plants, Parameswaran still had to sell the idea to plant managers. “People are going to ask, ‘What’s in it for me?’ ” says Parameswaran. He notes that communication was the key to successful change management. “We invited plant managers to visit and learn from other plants,” says Parameswaran. “When we did that, it was easy for them to share stories and help put the system in place.”

Collaboration has been around for decades. In the past, it was done using phones and facsimile, or faxes. Internet technology has accelerated data sharing and allowed companies such as U.S. Gypsum to provide global visibility into the intricate operations at dozens of plants. The data is also shared with suppliers, customers and partners. Collaboration can be supported by ERP systems such as Oracle, or through software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools. Perhaps the most commonly used collaboration tools are on everyone’s desktop in the form of e-mail and Microsoft SharePoint.

Not surprisingly, the companies that forged collaboration were those that needed it the most. In manufacturing, it was high technology and aerospace. As these industries went global and started to outsource design and manufacturing, they needed to work closely with outside partners. In the consumer packaged goods industry, companies competed on supply chain efficiency, which required tight collaboration from manufacturing through retail. Other industries followed with internal collaboration across disciplines and plant-to-plant collaboration. “Aerospace has been ahead in collaboration, and another innovator is high tech,” says Manish Modi, vice president of manufacturing and PLM development at Oracle. “These industries pioneered outsourced manufacturing and now it’s very mature.”

He notes that other industries saw the merits of collaboration and soon followed. “You’re finding that more conservative industries like automotive are also adopting collaborative practices.” Modi notes that plant-to-plant is catching up with partner-to-partner collaboration. “Plant-to-plant collaboration is not as mature as collaboration in outsourced manufacturing, but now we’re seeing standardization and sharing of best practices among plants,” says Modi. “They’re taking action by comparing facilities on practices and processes.”

The advantage of plant-to-plant collaboration is the ability to share best practices and standardize on product. “Multiple plants are making the same product, but you want to make sure they have the same recipe or bill of materials,” says Modi. “Oracle has created business intelligence to encourage the plants to go beyond what they’re achieving and line up with other plants. Say your on-time delivery is 97 percent. That may be good, but three other plants may be achieving 99 percent. Let’s find out what’s different.”

One area of collaboration that’s growing is in product development. Teams join through collaboration tools to move products quickly through development. “Collaboration slices down time-to-market and alleviates risk,” says James Horne, senior director of business development at Centric Software Inc., an SaaS collaboration provider in Campbell, Calif. “The benefit is that you instantaneously discover there’s a problem and you address it before a little spark becomes a fire. That visibility can allow you to get to market on time.”

Collaboration can have a significant impact on the time it takes to get a new product into production. “Many companies have gone from three years down to four months for getting a product to market when everybody is collaborating,” says Rory Granros, director of process industries at Infor, a relationship management software company in Alpharetta, Ga. As well as product development, he points to collaboration used in the plant. “You need collaboration between formulating and packaging,” says Granros. “The formula people don’t have to know all about the packaging, but they do have to know if the acid is too hot for the bottle.”

While collaboration began with phone and fax, its full power didn’t appear until Internet tools made it safe and efficient. “The collaboration today is only possible because of the tools that are available, not just across the boundaries of departments, but also across geographic and time boundaries,” says Eric Sterling, vice president of enterprise software at Siemens PLM Software, a Plano, Texas-based division of Siemens Automation and Drives. “That only exists today because of the tools that are available.”

Collaboration was embraced mostly quickly by companies that are leaders in innovation. “Best-of-class companies are probably two to three times more likely to standardize on collaboration tools,” says Sterling. “The collaboration has to be across the portfolio and product teams to the systems and process teams.”

Not all collaboration is partner-to-partner or plant-to-plant. Internal collaboration in a single location also improves manufacturing. “When the production schedule comes down, we know where it’s going to be executing on which piece of equipment,” says Kevin Tock, vice president of business development at Wonderware, a manufacturing software provider based in in Lake Forest, Calif. “The MES (manufacturing execution system) knows what’s going to happen.”

Security issues

 One of the biggest concerns in collaboration is making sure the sensitive information being shared cannot be accessed by competitors, hackers or counterfeiters. “Security is our core business. We make sure our security is higher than the level of security most businesses have in place,” says Eran Aloni, vice president of product at Clarizen Inc., a San Mateo, Calif., company that offers a SaaS collaboration platform. “Even within an organization, not everyone is authorized to see everything.”

Many manufacturers work across the globe now, whether internally, plant-to-plant or company-to-company. Collaboration has become critical for global companies, be it phone, fax or e-mail. Yet, the issues of security and efficiency have become more pressing as sensitive data is shared and the time-to-market for new products gets shorter. Plants are addressing these issues by turning to collaborative tools that protect information and facilitate quick and efficient sharing.

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