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More manufacturers turning to Microsoft SharePoint collaboration

More manufacturers are building Microsoft SharePoint collaboration systems, often with ERP integration, according to analysts.

For Tom Gill, information technology has enabled the steady growth and globalization of Plantronics Inc., the Santa...

Cruz, Calif.-based headset manufacturer where he works as CIO and vice president of IT. Over the past decade, Microsoft SharePoint collaboration has played an increasingly important role in that architecture, connecting the company’s 3,000 employees across 20 offices in the Americas, Europe, and Asia.

“Basically, it replaced our corporate intranet as our repository of all the information we want to share,” Gill said, referring to Microsoft’s content management and collaboration platform.

Plantronics began moving its U.S. manufacturing operations to Mexico in 1972, three years after one of its headsets captured the words of Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong when he first stepped on the moon. The company gradually added manufacturing or design facilities in the U.S., United Kingdom, and China, and distribution centers in several more countries. To keep them all connected, Gill's globally dispersed IT team has had to build and maintain a far-flung network infrastructure that runs a long list of enterprise applications.

Besides serving as the common storehouse of corporate information, SharePoint is a real-time collaboration hub, thanks to close integration with Lync, the successor to Microsoft’s unified communications platform, Office Communications Server. “SharePoint includes presence information,” Gill said. “I can see if the person is currently around, and I can [instant message] them.”

Analysts see rise in SharePoint collaboration for manufacturing

SharePoint is entering a new phase in its checkered history. In the past, it was often pushed aside for trendier web collaboration tools, or sold with other Microsoft enterprise applications only to sit unused. Lately, it is becoming the preferred content management, collaboration, and workflow platform for many manufacturers, sometimes displacing ERP and supply chain management (SCM) systems in those roles.

Analysts at IDC Manufacturing Insights, a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm, say they are seeing a sharp increase in major deployments.

“I think SharePoint has just become a natural extension for the manufacturers to use,” said Catherine White, an IDC research analyst, citing an auto manufacturer whose name she couldn’t divulge. “They started out with [SharePoint] 2003 pretty much just for their engineering department. It’s pretty much turned into their global platform for collaboration for their entire organization.” Another car maker, Ford Motor Co., has been open about its heavy use of SharePoint.

IDC doesn’t have numbers on SharePoint sales to manufacturers, but overall market figures show significant growth, White said. In 2009, Microsoft led the collaborative content workspace (CCW) market with a 16.3% share, almost all of it from SharePoint. The category is expected to grow from $8.8 billion in 2009 to $12.7 billion in 2014.

While SharePoint’s tentacles have started reaching into ERP systems, Plantronics, for one, has yet to use it that way. Plantronics instead prefers the workflow tools in Oracle E-Business Suite. “There aren’t a lot of touch points for us in that space yet,” Gill said. “Most of them [Oracle applications] have very rich workflow capabilities.” But Gill says Oracle promises to equip upcoming Fusion applications with direct hooks into Lync, which Plantronics employees might use for submitting and approving expenses.

Info-Tech Research Group Inc., a research and consulting firm based in London, Ontario, saw a spike in SharePoint inquiries confirmed by a recent survey, according to lead analyst Tim Hickernell.  “Something like 80% of respondents said they were going to roll out SharePoint 2010 by mid-2012,” Hickernell said. “Our business and demand for all things SharePoint right now is astronomical.”

For the first time in SharePoint’s history, Hickernell is seeing interest in using SharePoint to replace “run the business” file servers. “That’s a major development,” he said.

Plantronics’ Mexico plant will take that step when it deploys the current version, SharePoint 2010, to replace its first-generation content-management system, a kludge Gill said is built around file sharing and HTML links to documents. “We’re using it as a repository for our ISO 9001 and 14000 [quality and environmental] compliance documentation,” he said. “We’re really excited about putting that into SharePoint 2010. Compared to what they’re using, it’s light-years away.”

SharePoint becoming platform for developers

SharePoint is no longer just a checklist item for third-party integration. It’s becoming the development platform for some applications.

“We’re just seeing all kinds of solutions from providers built on top of SharePoint,” said Hickernell.  They will have a ready-made market. Many companies already own SharePoint as part of their site licenses with Microsoft, vendors and analysts said.

The healthy size of the installed base was apparent to Infor, which used SharePoint as the basis for Infor Workspace, a role-based user interface for business intelligence (BI) and collaboration that works across several of the company’s enterprise applications.

“We took all the applications and ‘commonized’ the user interface,” said Soma Somasundaram, Infor’s senior vice president of global product development. Though Workspace requires a SharePoint server, 85% of Infor’s manufacturing customers already have it, or they can access it from the Infor cloud.  Infor’s products run on several platforms, and a customer needn’t be a Microsoft house to take part. “SharePoint is just the canvas where things get rendered,” Somasundaram said.

Other developers with strong presences in manufacturing have used SharePoint as the foundation for new products:

  •  Rockwell Automation Inc. (Milwaukee, Wisc.) partnered with Microsoft to make shop-floor data in its manufacturing intelligence (MI) software, FactoryTalk VantagePoint, available in SharePoint’s BI tool, PerformancePoint Services.
  • PTC (Needham, Mass.) introduced SocialLink, a SharePoint-based tool for collaborating around information from PTC’s product development and computer-aided design (CAD) systems in online communities.
  • Apriso Corp. (Long Beach, Calif.) combined SharePoint with technology from analytics vendor Predisys Inc. (Andover, Mass.) to bring statistical process control to its FlexNet manufacturing execution system.

Lately, efforts to integrate with SharePoint have taken a more serious turn. For example, SAP and Microsoft, whose jointly developed Duet middleware links SAP ERP products with Microsoft Office, released an enterprise version in February expressly to add the SharePoint connection, according to the press release.

Enabling the social-mobile-analytics convergence

Several SharePoint users, analysts, and developers agreed that SharePoint 2010 is nicely positioned to take advantage of the convergence of social media, mobile devices, and analytics that some see as the next wave of computing.

SharePoint 2010 added social media features that allow companies to set up “peer networks” with a Facebook-like look and feel, White said.

But while Plantronics uses Facebook and LinkedIn to interact with customers and suppliers, it mostly employs SharePoint social media internally for employee forums and blogs. “That’s all made better with presence,” Gill said.

One of the main collaboration features from SharePoint’s very first version, team sites, is becoming popular for managing projects, often replacing the specialized platform, Microsoft Project, Hickernell said.

That’s true for Plantronics. “All of our engineering projects have team sites associated with them,” Gill said. “We also manage our portfolio of IT projects on team sites.”

 SharePoint is also gaining popularity for consolidating back-end data sources and running “pervasive BI” on them, claimed Sanjay Ravi, managing director of Microsoft’s discrete manufacturing industry group.

“There’s a very strong SharePoint presence among all the large manufacturers today,” Ravi said. Much of the interest comes from companies that want to quickly set up collaboration with new overseas plants, he said.

Hickernell confirmed that with the 2010 upgrade, SharePoint gained analytics features that effectively made it a BI server, which some companies use to roll up financial data from incompatible systems into a single report. “Absolutely—it’s a good enough platform for that,” he said.

At its best, White said, SharePoint can function as a “one-stop shop” for collaboration, document management and web publishing that minimizes the need to hire new programmers. But companies with a need to share CAD engineering files will find SharePoint lacking in that area, she said.

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