Web 2.0 collaboration technologies like wikis, blogs and social networks are helping one young manufacturing company in its quest to improve product designs, cut costs and get closer to the customer.
Equipois Inc., a Los Angeles-based manufacturer of mechanical arms that allow heavy tools, parts and materials to be easily maneuvered, set out to leverage Web 2.0 collaboration tools from the time it was founded 2-1/2 years ago -- and the company has been realizing significant benefits ever since. Supply chain experts say that larger manufacturing organizations could learn valuable lessons about the benefits of Web 2.0 collaboration from the experiences of the startup with fewer than 20 people on staff.
"We have manufacturing, sales and marketing at corporate in LA. We have R&D in Philadelphia, and then we have salespeople at two other cities around the country," said Eric Golden, Equipois' president and CEO. "So we were looking for a tool that would let us, for starters, share files across different offices and also allow us some form of communication. We really ended up using [Web 2.0 collaboration technologies] across the whole organization."
Web 2.0 is the term used to describe the so-called second generation of Internet technologies, which includes blogs, wikis and RSS feeds. Popular incarnations of Web 2.0 on the Internet include the sites MySpace.com and Facebook. But Web 2.0 software platforms are increasingly being sought as a way to help businesses enhance communication and collaboration among employees, suppliers and customers.
Equipois' foray into Web 2.0 collaboration technologies included trials of free social networking platforms found on the Web, but those didn't offer enough advanced functionality, Golden said. The company took a hard look at Microsoft SharePoint, but the popular collaborative offering was too expensive for the fledgling company. Ultimately, Equipois settled on Central Desktop Inc., a Pasadena, Calif., provider of a Software as a Service (SaaS)-based social networking platform.
Golden liked Central Desktop because it was relatively inexpensive yet still offered the advanced functionality that Equipois wanted -- for instance, document sharing and back-office integration with Salesforce.com customer relationship management (CRM) applications.
Central Desktop is a well-structured wiki, Golden explained, but with added features such as the ability to share folders across workspaces and create customer intranets -- shared workspaces where specific employees interact closely with the customers they serve.
"Our R&D workgroup has an innovation workspace on Central Desktop where any employee can submit ideas that are geared towards new products and new processes, anything to improve innovation within the organization," Golden said.
Central Desktop has also been helpful in terms of workflow management, he said. For example, before Equipois implemented an ERP system, it used Central Desktop to handle its entire purchasing process. All the approvals required for a purchase order – from the requestor to accounting and so on -- would be tracked on Central Desktop, and the right people would be informed by Central Desktop whenever a request was brought to the next level.
"We also built a database in Central Desktop to track our inventory before we put [a more expansive] inventory program together," Golden said. "That's not a long-term solution, but [it goes to show] that you can use these systems to plug major apps as your organization is evolving."
What about larger manufacturers?
Equipois is getting a significant return on its Web 2.0 investments, but Golden admits that the startup had it easy in that it was born into the Web 2.0 era with "a clean slate." He agrees with supply chain experts who say that larger manufacturers with ingrained legacy technologies and old-school corporate cultures may have a harder time realizing the benefits of Web 2.0.
That's why it's important for manufacturers to start small and set reasonable goals when embarking on a Web 2.0 collaboration project, said G. Oliver Young, a supply chain analyst with Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.
"You shouldn't be thinking about changing collaboration or changing corporate culture as a stated goal," Young said. "It should be something far more tangible, something that isn't working today that you can quantifiably measure and use these tools to change. That may mean deploying just one [social networking] tool for just one set of users [where communication seems to be breaking down]."
If a firm wants machinists, foremen and other shop-floor workers to take time from their busy days to find a computer, log on to a wiki and collaborate with company brass, that firm had better provide incentives. Those incentives could be as simple as giving employees a place to check their hours or sound off on a particular issue.
"There's got to be something in it for them," Young said. "They have to be able to do their jobs better, or they have to be able to get information they couldn't get otherwise, or frankly, you're just wasting their time. If they don't think it's of value to them, it probably isn't."
At some manufacturing organizations, getting day-to-day shop-floor workers involved with Web 2.0 may be too much to ask, especially when their compensation is based on how many "widgets" they produce on a given day, said Josh Holbrook, a supply chain analyst with Boston-based Yankee Group.
In those cases, he said, it's probably best to assign the shop foreman or individual team leaders to do the posting on corporate social networking sites based on their interactions with the workers they supervise. "In lots of cases, it's not just the shop-floor person who is contributing, it's the knowledge worker at that end of the manufacturing organization," Holbrook said.
Holbrook and Young said that starting small may also mean holding off on purely in-house collaboration at first. Instead, they said, companies could try launching social networks with suppliers, customers or both.
"If you can make your supply chain more efficient by collaborating with them more closely, then you have hard dollar ROI," Holbrook said. "And once people see that there really is something to this Web 2.0 thing, it can then start to spider throughout the organization."
Getting started with Web 2.0 on the cheap
The good news for larger manufacturers is that getting started on rudimentary social networking is very inexpensive. Free social networking tools available on the Web include MediaWiki, the open source wiki tool that runs the popular Wikipedia.org social networking site; Drupal, which Young says is one of the more popular open source social networking tools available today; and Wordpress, which offers free and "easy to use" blogging software and other tools.
Other vendors that offer free basic services but charge for more advanced services like consulting include Ning, CrowdVine, PeopleAggregator, Haystack and ONEsite.
"Frankly, even the [social networking tools] that you pay for aren't really that expensive as compared to other IT investments like CRM or ERP," Holbrook said. "It's a drop in the bucket compared to those."
Lessons learned and plans for the future
Equipois CEO Golden says that one of the key benefits of Web 2.0 is the profound effect that greater collaboration can have on the final design of a product. And design improvements can and often do come from unexpected places.
"You want to get the voice of the customer as close to the product as possible, but the guys who are closest to the customer are not generally the guys in R&D, they're the service techs who go out to the customer," he said. "And so, having those service technicians offer input and feedback on design is critical."
Golden has been happy with Central Desktop, but he'd like to see future releases of the product integrate more deeply with back-end applications. "We're currently implementing a [manufacturing resource planning] program called Fishbowl," he said. "If Central Desktop could figure out a way to interact with that, then it really would kind of be the glue that sticks it all together."
Going forward, Equipois plans to construct an online database that pulls together disparate sources of information about how customers are using Equipois' products. "Hopefully," Golden said, "we're going to tie that together with Central Desktop and Salesforce.com and make it a pretty cool tool and key resource for our applications group."
Mark Brunelli is a freelance writer.