Lack of standards blocks supply-chain automation

By Marc L. Songini, Computerworld |  Software

A lack of standards has become a huge barrier to using e-business technology to automate corporate supply chains, according to attendees at a conference New Orleans. And there currently is no real solution in sight, they said.

Some users at the Supply Chain World Conference and Exposition expressed hope about an ongoing attempt to map XML-based B2B protocols created by the RosettaNet consortium for the electronics industry to a set of supply-chain collaboration guidelines. If that's successful, attendees said, similar standards efforts may follow in the automotive or chemical industries. Indeed, a group of chemical makers are already working on an XML-based specification aimed at simplifying participation in online trading exchanges.

But a number of corporate users expressed doubts that any of the initiatives will produce standards that meet with widespread acceptance. And until that happens, they said, companies trying to automate their supply chains will have to continue relying on a jumble of different technologies and communications channels -- not just the Web, but also electronic data interchange (EDI) systems, faxes and phone calls.

The current lack of business-to-business standards is the single greatest barrier to implementing Web-based supply-chain systems for many large users, said Scott Stephens, chief technology officer at Pittsburgh-based Supply Chain Council Inc., which is sponsoring this week's conference.

During recent focus group discussions held by the council, Stephens said, enterprise users listed the creation of common e-business definitions and data formatting techniques as being of "paramount" importance. "It's a huge problem in some industries," he said. For example, the product definitions used in the chemical business differ greatly from company to company, Stephens added.

Technology vendors such as Siemens AG and Intel Corp. believe the RosettaNet protocols will help relieve some of the problems within the electronics industry. Linking the protocols to standard supply-chain procurement methods should help companies in that industry establish common e-business processes, said George Brown, a senior staff architect at Intel and a member of the Supply Chain Council.

The RosettaNet-based initiative, which began last fall, is aimed at producing a flexible standard governing online business collaboration between manufacturers and suppliers, Brown said during a talk at the conference. Once unified data formatting procedures are in place, he added, companies should be able to accelerate their RosettaNet implementations.

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