Gotcha! Inter-Company Development

By Sean Gallagher  |  Posted 2002-11-01 Print this article Print

What companies need to know before teaming on a project.

Did you know that:

The first choke point is bound to be your network plumbing.

Especially when replicating large files for engineering and design. In such cases, collaborators can be exchanging hundreds of billions of characters of information. And they need to do it instantly, in "real time."

If your key partners aren't wired with high-bandwidth connections, collaborating with them in real time may be almost impossible. GM has moved more than 100 of its U.S. and European suppliers to direct high-speed network connections to combat slowness. In the U.S, for instance, more than 20 outside firms are connected to GM by a two-billion-bit-per-second metropolitan area network known as GigaMAN.

Your storage requirements will grow exponentially

Digitizing product development—or just about any business process—means centralizing storage that may have been on smaller file servers, the hard drives of desktop computers, or paper. Putting everything into a single, universally accessible place means a lot more central storage. Capturing the design process digitally for GM's 86 models of cars over the past five years has driven its engineering storage requirements from fewer than 6 trillion characters of information to more than 350 trillion, a.k.a. 350 terabytes.

Improper training can kill you.

GM's plan for collaboration mandated a single set of engineering applications for itself and partners. That required retraining more than 19,000 engineers in three-dimensional solid modeling using Unigraphics. For Tesco Engineering, that meant not just retraining, but hiring new staff already skilled in 3-D tools—and pushing some people who couldn't adapt out the door.

Testing every component matters.

Managing a rollout across 900 suppliers with "real-time" connections to your system can be akin to running a space shuttle launch. Each component of software can potentially affect the operation of the whole system.

For each update rollout, or "block point," GM and its deployment partner, EDS, do as much as 50,000 hours of user testing prior to deployment, according to Russell Krauss, managing director for General Motors' account at EDS.

Block points are usually deployed over a weekend. GM and EDS establish a global command center to track deployments, and deploy teams globally to do site audits. As the rollout starts, the command center tracks how long each stage of deployment is taking and other metrics. If anything seems to be taking too long, the command center leaders get site teams to the location of the problem and determine whether to keep going or "to back out of taking it to production," says Krauss.

Your partners could choke to death on the cost if you don't keep it simple.

The cost of even the desktop portion of a collaborative design system can be more than many smaller companies can handle themselves—making it difficult to drive universal standards. GM reduced costs for many of its top suppliers such as Tesco by placing them under GM's blanket licensing agreement with EDS, cutting the cost of Unigraphics software by a quarter. Smaller suppliers, however, still haven't gotten on board; GM is piloting a "lightweight" piece of software for viewing design files that will allow these companies to work from GM's product data without having to buy and support the full data sharing and design system from EDS.

Sharing information means you need more locks.

Security becomes a major concern when you plan to share product data with suppliers—whether it's across private networks, or the Internet, or both. GM has to determine what each supplier sees—enforcing access and security policies right down to each individual user. Engineers at Tesco, for instance, can go online to see the designs for doors, but cannot access designs for the power train.

For large suppliers directly wired to GM by its GigaMAN network, security is fairly straightforward. GM designates which data gets replicated to each supplier's TeamCenter servers.

Smaller suppliers get a virtual private network that works over the Internet, using a combination of Tivoli and Sun Microsystems software. Suppliers connect by Web browser connection, and are individually cleared against a directory.

Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.

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