The kinds of activity streams prevalent in social media tools like Twitter and Facebook have already started to appear in enterprise applications like Salesforce.com’s Chatter and Tibco’s tibbr. Now they’re making their way into cloud enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems that support the manufacturing industry. Two of the most prominent vendors incorporating activity streams are Kenandy (which is built on the Force.com platform and provides activity streams through Chatter) and NetSuite Manufacturing Edition (which uses Yammer).
These social collaboration tools have the potential to democratize manufacturing by increasing information-sharing across shop floors and supply chains. Beyond that, these streams could revolutionize the user interfaces (UIs) of manufacturing software.
Activity Streams Enable Agile Production
Activity streams eliminate the problem of information delay, a particularly vexing issue for manufacturers that operate on just in time (JIT) and lean principles. In Kenandy and NetSuite, users can subscribe to the activity stream of any object in the system–for instance, a purchase order (PO), bill of material (BOM), or product–and receive instant updates on related interactions. The ability to assign an activity stream to each object allows manufacturing teams to interact in real-time on projects, orders and more.
For example, a user can subscribe to a PO and follow it from initiation to fulfillment. If an issue arises that delays the fulfillment of that order, the production team can immediately flag it so the sales team knows of the delay and can notify the customer. This kind of instant information-sharing both improves customer service and greatly reduces the amount of time spent on communication. What used to be accomplished with phone calls, emails and faxes can now be done with a quick message.
An example of an activity stream in Kenandy regarding a purchase order.
Similar benefits can be realized across a manufacturer’s supply chain. Everyone involved in the chain can participate in the activity stream to chime in with quick updates on things like proper design specifications from the engineer, available inventory levels from the supplier, and delivery times from the distributor. This level of engagement democratizes the production process by providing company-wide access to information that used to be concentrated in the hands of a few.
Activity Streams Turn Manufacturing UIs Into a Daily Dashboard
Beyond increasing information sharing and employee engagement, activity streams also transform manufacturing UIs into what Rod Butters of Kenandy refers to as a “daily cockpit.” According to Butters, manufacturing UIs were historically a place where BOMs were entered and stored so that manufacturers could run material requirements planning (MRP) applications and produce reports and paperwork.
With the addition of activity streams, Butters elaborates, “the software becomes a place where manufacturing lives.” It allows individuals to share analysis and feedback on the transaction data and the reports that are generated. Roman Bukary, Head of Industries Marketing at NetSuite adds, “social activity streams in manufacturing take the data of manufacturing software and help explain why it matters or what to do about it.” In short, it creates a more human way of interacting with the software and collaborating to meet production goals.
Three Uses of Activity Streams in Manufacturing Software UIs
Data enrichment and social collaboration is a new spin on old problems confronting manufacturing and its accompanying software tools. In looking at how activity streams can potentially change the way manufacturers operate, I started thinking about how manufacturing software UIs would benefit from incorporating activity streams. Here are three ways I can envision.
- Automate reminders to keep projects flowing. A key benefit of an activity stream is that it automatically updates subscribed users with the latest feedback or action taken. This could be used to create task reminders that help keep shop production running smoothly. Such a UI would remind each employee of their current and future projects at the appropriate time, enabling them to stay on task and to plan ahead.
- Stream educational reminders along with tasks. Activity streams allow employees to contribute in a feedback loop, through which they will inevitably share some useful educational information. Manufacturing UIs could collect this information and attach it to tasks as reminders to the individuals performing the task. That way, employees know a best practice for each task they’re expected to complete. Many applications have integrated wikis which can store some of this information, but they require the user to seek it out. In contrast, a stream with this information attached proactively delivers the right information at the right time to the right individuals.
- Aggregate the most pressing tasks for immediate action. A final benefit I see in activity streams is that it keeps employees abreast of the highest-priority action items. In the stream, employees can quickly determine the best way to handle an issue confronting the shop. Manufacturing UIs could adopt this approach by automatically organizing the day’s shop activities according to which task brings the most benefit to the shop as a whole. For instance, an order may need to be completed and rushed out to a crucial client before production on a new PO can begin. A manufacturing UI that can order tasks by importance would help manufacturers become more efficient.
While activity streams mature and gain a foothold in manufacturing, the implications for manufacturing UIs are sure to expand, as well. These are the impacts on manufacturing production and corresponding software tools that I see activity streams having today.
What implications do you see activity streams having on UIs? How about the manufacturing process as a whole? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below.
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