Web Services Enhance Manufacturing

Oct. 1, 2005
Web Services breathe new life into manufacturing, says Ari Bixhorn, director of Web Services strategy for Microsoft Corp. (www.microsoft.com), Redmond, Wash.

Through such services’ interoperability, manufacturers now interact with customers, partners and suppliers in new ways that enable better product collaboration and cost reduction, he says. End-users see Web Services’ benefits, he adds, through better customer support—customer-relationship-management databases, customer loyalty programs, shipment information and account information—and faster time-to-market with desired products.

Built on industry standards, Web Services enable technologies to work together across platform and technology boundaries, Bixhorn explains. For developers, Web Services drastically reduce the amount of infrastructure code required to achieve interoperability across heterogeneous systems, he says. For businesses, Web Services facilitate communication with customers, partners and suppliers within and beyond an organization, he notes. “The result is less information-technology complexity and significant cost savings.” Bixhorn also says Web Services enable manufacturers to extend legacy systems without massive investment and rip-and-replace scenarios.

Dynamic response

Service-oriented architecture, or SOA, provides the key attribute of loose coupling, as well as two other key attributes—reusability and governance—that Web Services need to achieve the strategic value of SOA, says Miko Matsumura, vice president of technology at Cupertino, Calif.-based Infravio (www.infravio.com), a provider of SOA Web Services management. Intermediaries in Web Services provide this loose coupling, he explains. That means there’s a dynamic response that doesn’t exist with simple point-to-point connections—and that response is the ability to essentially interconnect an arbitrary number of service providers with an arbitrary number of service consumers, Matsumura says.

“At the end of the day, you want to apply your business policies that make the business function. At some level, Web Services are about focusing on the requirements and the requests, as opposed to focusing on the details. What you get with Web Services is a way to map the capabilities of the network to the parameters of your request,” Matsumura explains. Thus, the result becomes the focus, not delivery details, he says. “The result can always be ‘No.’ But it can also be the suggestion of other alternatives.”

An everyday analogue of Web Services is ordering pizza for home or office delivery, he suggests. “You’re focused on a hot pizza with certain parameters, such as pepperoni, arriving at a certain latency, say 30 minutes or less. That 30 minutes or less is a service-level agreement. So you focus on specifying the request at the level of your need.” The SOA attribute of loose coupling dictates that you don’t specify how the pizza is delivered, as long as it’s delivered within 30 minutes, he explains. “But the requester may have a preference for a specific brand of pizza—and that is just another parameter,” Matsumura adds.

Dell Inc. (www.dell.com uses Web Services to leverage common services across its entire enterprise, says Ahmed Mahmoud, Dell’s vice president of information-technology global-manufacturing fulfillment systems, Austin, Texas. He notes that historically, people have talked about code reuse, but Web Services represent service reuse. “[And] in that background of that one service, I might have an entire Web farm of services servicing that. All those programs are not aware that I may have hundreds of servers—they’re just communicating with one Web service.”

For example, Dell uses bills of materials (BOMs) and calls on its BOM services for every single system it builds, he says. But by having a BOM Web service, any application on the manufacturing floor that is loosely coupled with the service has only to go to the Web service, rather than the BOM program installed at each application, he explains. “We use Web Services for real-time interaction in our manufacturing processes.”

C. Kenna Amos, [email protected], is an Automation World Contributing Editor.