IT Boosts Innovation, Profits for Manufacturers

Within three centuries, the world has evolved from the industrial era to the information age. Manufacturing pioneers created the steam engine, cotton gin, sewing machine and automobile assembly line. IT innovators have fueled a technology revolution in which computers that took up entire rooms have transformed into pocket-sized smartphones. Today, IT advances are shaping the way manufacturers do business.

To find out more about how information technology is driving the manufacturing sector, Baseline spoke to IT leaders at five different manufacturing companies. Here are their stories:

A Car Powered for Progress

By now, it?s hardly news that automobiles have emerged as ?computers on wheels.? But the wealth of technology onboard is getting more and more sophisticated, and automakers are constantly seeking the very latest in IT innovations to remain competitive. They need tech tools to produce models that are safer, while still striking that ?just right? balance between fuel efficiency and performance.

In addition, automakers must ensure that the very best of in-vehicle extras?state-of-art sound systems, GPS and other consumer ?goodies??are all successfully integrated within the overall vehicle. Such complexity in design, planning and execution often requires assistance from outside IT solution providers.

For Detroit-based General Motors, the 2011 Chevrolet Volt presents a textbook example of the modern automobile manufacturing process. A T-shaped lithium-ion battery provides enough juice for the car to drive between 25 and 50 miles on electric power alone. And the Volt is no wimpy ride: Its software-driven engineering system enables the vehicle to go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 9 seconds, and then hit a top speed of 100 mph.

To design and build the vehicle, GM took advantage of a number of IBM supercomputers and simulation solutions. It deployed IBM software products to help engineers model the interactions of the Volt?s embedded systems with the electric-drive system. GM also turned to the vendor?s collaboration systems to greatly reduce the time it took to bring the product to market.

GM and IBM also put the Volt battery packs through many stages of safety, durability and performance validation. The System p UNIX-based supercomputers and simulation tools provided the high-performance computing needed by test teams to meet thousands of specifications and validate each of the Volt battery?s 161 components, while supporting tests in areas including short circuit, corrosion, dust, impact, water submersion, crush and penetration, and extreme temperature swings. A total of nine modules and 288 cells were involved in that effort. The result? The Volt was designed and engineered in just 29 months; a typical vehicle program can take a little more than 36 months.

?We?re continuing to use IBM tools to move on to the next generation of manufacturing,? says Eric Gassenfeit, GM?s director of electrical controls and software IT. ?The collaboration tools alone had a huge impact on efficiency, allowing us to ?follow the sun?by having teams work on the car nearly 24 hours a day.

?We?d have the team in India work on software code, and their schedule would be more than four hours ahead of a team in Europe to which it would hand off the work. Then the team in Europe, which was six hours ahead of the United States, would hand off to our team there. It was essential for all the tools and systems to be synchronized so the people in Europe could see what the people in India did, and so on.?

The solutions also allowed for greater change and configuration automation, so if anything had to be adjusted during the design or manufacturing processes, e-notifications were sent immediately to involved parties. Workers and managers on the Volt project also had access to a dashboard-style perspective to view the car?s progress.

This notification/oversight system also extended to the vehicle?s suppliers, which included hundreds of outside companies. ?Cars are so complicated today that suppliers have to be in on the enterprise,? Gassenfeit says.

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Brewing a Better Solution

In its original 1950s brew house, Boulevard Brewing needed workers to unscrew and relocate pipes when the product had to move from one fermentation tank to another. So, when the company opened a new 80,000-square-foot brew house four years ago, it automated the movement of product with respect to valves, pipes and other essentials via a software-driven solution. This enabled more efficiency in producing batches of beer with names like Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale, Long Strange Tripel and Boss Tom?s Golden Bock.

Unfortunately, the system?s reliability could be fleeting. If just one workstation locked up or crashed, an entire 300-keg batch could be ruined. The cost for such a malfunction could amount to as much as $100,000 in lost beer sales for the Kansas City-based brewery. To solve that problem, the company upgraded the automation system via a large-scale virtualization project.

Virtualization was already being considered for the accounting/administrative side of the business. So Tony Lux, who oversees IT for Boulevard Brewing, explored a similar option for the company?s manufacturing operations. ?We had a computer automation system that worked OK,? says Lux, whose official title is ?purveyor of technology.? ?But, if one PC went down, everything went down. That meant we couldn?t make beer, and beer is how we pay our bills.?

The company turned to Pano Logic to launch a ?zero client? virtualization system. The zero client is a cube the size of a McDonald?s Big Mac container into which employees plug a monitor, keyboard and mouse. The cube has no computing capacity within it (hence the zero in the name), but it acts as a conduit to connect the user to the computer, which exists on the server.

The cost per workstation has decreased from $1,500 to $350. This allowed the brewery to expand system access points from several scattered locations to more than 20 throughout the brewery?s various buildings.

?With zero client, there is no middleman between the server and the workstation,? Lux explains. ?In the redundant server environment, it doesn?t matter if the power dies for one server.

?We used to lose two or three batches a year. Now we haven?t lost a single one.?

This solution, which operates with VMware on the back end and Pano Logic operating the virtual desktops, also enables a dashboard-like view of the manufacturing process at all levels of production. The workers responsible for bottling can glance at their screens to see how far along the product is during the filtration and/or fermentation stages.

?Before, these employees had to walk over to the building and ask, ?When is it going to be ready??? Lux recalls. ?Now, they get all this information at their workstations?or they can get it on their iPads since the solution is mobile too. This probably has made us 50 percent more efficient.?

Virtualization Lasts a ?Lifetime?

Lifetime Products, a Clearfield, Utah-based manufacturer of folding tables, residential basketball hoops, outdoor sheds and other popular suburban items, also has benefited from a desktop virtualization project. With 3,500 employees in nine locations worldwide, Lifetime sought to consolidate resources throughout these locations, to allow for more efficient use of IT, while also increasing global collaboration on product development, production and distribution.

The company worked with Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft to launch a virtualization system that features a centralized pool of PC and workstation blades. The shared infrastructure consists of HP t5740 and HP Compaq t5730w Thin Client terminals connected to a pool of 660 HP BladeSystem Blade PCs and HP ProLiant Blade Workstations. The upshot: Total cost of ownership (TCO) for the network has been lowered by $200,000 a year, and Lifetime is also saving $600,000 per year through the use of shared PC/workstation blades. In addition, the project has helped improve network security.

John Bowden, CIO and vice president of IT for Lifetime, says the effort is part of a 16-year journey to centralize technology and lower the TCO. As with any major technology change, managers must prepare staffers for the transition.

?With desktop virtualization, at first there is some cultural adjustment,? Bowden acknowledges. ?The internal end-user employee needs to realize that it?s no longer about ?my desktop computer? anymore. It?s a company computer.

?But this also means they can log on from any company site in the world, and their desktop ?stuff? follows them wherever they go. This centralized approach also allows for more control over intellectual property. Our legal team, for example, can rest easy knowing that critical patent information for our plant in China isn?t going to get leaked.?

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Providing Nuts-and-Bolts Solutions

Many manufacturing companies seek technology solutions that aren?t necessarily unique to the business of ?making things,? but are, nevertheless, able to help meet strategic company goals. Two Midwestern manufacturers representing ?heartland of the country?-style products have successfully done just that:

Radio Flyer, the Chicago-based maker of the ?little red wagon? since 1917 (as well as tricycles, scooters and other ride-on toys), had to improve its reporting and analytics, as key reports were very text-driven and difficult to consume. Additionally, if an executive had a special data request?such as how a particular product was performing in a certain sales channel within a specific timeframe?a new report would have to be developed via an IT resource. And given a general lack of interactivity, there was no ability to conduct a detailed analysis by ?slicing and dicing? the information.

Understanding these limitations, solution-provider Project Leadership Associates built a Microsoft-based business analytics solution that tapped SharePoint and SQL Server technology to integrate and consolidate existing information for a streamlined ?single-view? perspective.

?For new requests, we can get the information in the hands of the sales team in a matter of seconds, as opposed to hours or days? says Tom Cesario, Radio Flyer?s directorof IT. ?We can provide many different views of the information, such as season of the year, time of day, product line, etc. That allows us to make better decisions about which customers we should be devoting more attention to?and when.?

Meanwhile, in Minnetonka, Minn., Rapala USA found itself overwhelmed with the often unpredictable rise of demand for electronic data interchange (EDI) transactions. Rapala is a world leader in the production of fishing lures, with factories in Finland, France, Estonia and China. In addition, it works with more than two dozen distribution companies that sell products in 140 nations. In the United States, the lures are sold at retailers such as Walmart, Target and Dick?s Sporting Goods.

Whether the tasks involved purchase orders, inbound purchase order changes, invoices, advanced-shipping notices or inbound text messages, the level of attention that had to be paid to EDI varied greatly due to the high sales volume, diverse product line and broad customer base.

Even though Rapala has about 100 employees in its U.S.-based enterprise alone, the manufacturer employs only three people in the IT department. Given that one employee would be responsible for EDI transactions?and the unpredictability of the job resulted in an unappealing ?feast or famine? workload?the department opted to get out of this part of the IT business.

?This is something we simply can?t do well in-house,? acknowledges Naomi Dwyer, vice president of information systems for Rapala. ?It doesn?t address our core competencies. We?d rather focus on tasks that help us work harder?and smarter.?

The company turned to SPS Commerce to outsource the work using a software-as-a-service (SaaS) model. In addition to off-loading a non-core duty, Rapala has also stabilized its EDI costs in the process.

?Every year, we?d deal with a new budget for this [EDI] service, and the price kept going up,? Dwyer recalls. ?Now, it?s a fixed, flat fee every month, and I spend only a few minutes a year appropriating the correct amount?then I don?t have to think about it anymore.?