SharePoint plays central role in Microsoft's continuing plant-floor dominance

At the pet products division of San Francisco, Calif.-based Del Monte Foods, software to automate the formula change process has boosted productivity, enhanced time-to-market, and reduced time taken to make product formulation changes by 33 percent. “It's allowed us to move away from a labor–intensive process with significant duplication of work, to a streamlined formula management...


At the pet products division of San Francisco, Calif.-based Del Monte Foods , software to automate the formula change process has boosted productivity, enhanced time-to-market, and reduced time taken to make product formulation changes by 33 percent.

“It's allowed us to move away from a labor–intensive process with significant duplication of work, to a streamlined formula management system,” says Michael Hayes, Del Monte director of quality assurance.

But the identity of the software in question may surprise some: Microsoft Office Excel 2007, accessed along a defined workflow through a portal provided by Office SharePoint Server 2007, with compliance and other data gathered and archived using Office InfoPath 2007.

SharePoint, it turns out, is becoming something of an underground hit for Microsoft, with license sales exceeding 90 million in a single 12-month period, revenues rumored at $1 billion, and Microsoft executives increasingly pointing to its central role in delivering the company's three-part vision for manufacturing industry: integration, collaboration, and analytics.

So far, much of the SharePoint-related buzz surrounds analytics, with plant-floor analytics comprising one of three so-called “reference architectures” for Office Business Applications aimed at meeting manufacturers' needs. The others are price management and supply chain management.

Essentially, says Sam Youness, Microsoft's worldwide industry technical strategist for plant operations, Office Business Applications are “composite applications” built up from often very familiar Microsoft products such as Office, which have been engineered in their 2005 or 2007 versions to work better together.

“Usability is key,” adds Günter Rester, a director of marketing for manufacturing industry at Microsoft. “Office Business Applications provide a way for individuals to access information through a familiar Office-like user interface, working together with other individuals as part of a business process.”

A whole new Excel

But if the interface is familiar, the workings behind it may be less so. Take Excel, for example. A feature that offers appeal to many manufacturers is that the Excel their users will be interacting with isn't the familiar desktop product, but a Web-based front end that renders a full-function spreadsheet to the desktop, and requires no software other than a Web browser to be installed on the user's computer.

The licensing and cost-of-ownership implications can be attractive—especially in terms of providing spreadsheet access to occasional plant-floor users who need no more than simple charting.

SharePoint is a portal-based collaboration and document management platform from Microsoft. It can be used to host Web sites, called SharePoint portals, which allow access to shared work spaces and documents from a browser.

Perhaps more important are the security, integration, and versioncontrol advantages that come with server-based Excel. The core spreadsheet itself resides on the server, not only simplifying back-up, security, and control, but also integration to other applications and devices that might publish data to it.

What's more, change-control capabilities have been boosted even further by Microsoft PerformancePoint Server, acquired—and subsequently enhanced—through Microsoft's purchase of ProClarity in April 2006.

According to Youness, by creating tight integration between the core Rockwell technology and Microsoft Office, Microsoft SQL Server, Microsoft PerformancePoint Server, and Microsoft Reporting Services—which form the core of the Plant Floor Analytics Office Business Application—“There's no need to rekey data or even think about data acquisition and entry at all—it just happens,” says Youness. “The user can drill down into the data, starting with a broad view and homing in on individual pieces of equipment; then analyzing and manipulating that data with Excel.”

ISV glee

In short, Office Business Applications comprises a rich capability set that other vendors can usefully leverage to neatly combine the synergies between their installed customer base and Microsoft's hefty development budget. As Rester explains, an ecosystem of partner relationships is thus starting to exploit the capabilities offered by SharePoint Server, Office Business Applications, and the other allied technologies that Microsoft is developing and bringing to market.

“SharePoint Server is key,” says Rick Bullotta, CTO at Wonderware . “Today we use a small part of SharePoint Server 2003 as part of our Wonderware Information Server 3.0 for delivering trending and other charts, but it's just touching the surface. Going forward, SharePoint Server 2007 is going to take a more prominent role.”

While acknowledging the promise of other parts of the overarching tool set emerging from Redmond, Wash.—such as Communications Server, with instant messaging Whiteboards and VoIP, and Microsoft SQL Server Reporting Services—Bullotta stresses that SharePoint Server is the core technology that unlocks and leverages many of the others.

“We're definitely going to leverage SharePoint extensively within our offerings—not just for contextualizing and visualizing information, but incorporating tasks and workflow,” he says. “It's a whole new take on what manufacturing intelligence means, and which analytics can be delivered using these capabilities. And from the manufacturer's point of view, you don't need to be a developer to exploit them.”

OSIsoft is similarly enthusiastic, having released its own linked tools—the PI Visuals and PI Analytics layers—in June. “We think the Excel Services component of SharePoint will add a lot of value, and for customers who haven't yet made a SharePoint infrastructure investment, it will provide ample justification,” says Gregg LeBlanc, OSIsoft director of technical services.

“We've always integrated with Office on the desktop,” continues LeBlanc, “but now we're doing it on the server, linked to the PI System. You can manipulate an Excel spreadsheet over the Web without fear of breaking it. You can release a production spreadsheet, and have people work on it reliably and securely.”

Customer feedback has been very positive, LeBlanc adds. “It's something that customers have always wanted, but something that it made sense for us to wait for Microsoft to do the heavy lifting on. Now that Microsoft has delivered, customers get a huge amount of reporting without needing to write a single line of code.”

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