Harris Corp. engineers search for parts info in Google-like format

By Thomas Hoffman, Computerworld |  Business Intelligence, data warehouse, mashup

By the time Leon Shivamber was hired in 2004 by Harris Corp. as vice president of supply chain and operations, the company had already shifted out of its semiconductor and printing businesses and was focused squarely on building communications systems for governmental and commercial customers. But the company still had a very divisional structure for its four businesses.

"We felt there was a need to bring our [business] divisions and our suppliers closer and provide a new platform to help people make better decisions," says Shivamber.

Key to the company's strategy was finding an effective way to collate data from the four disparate manufacturing resource planning (MRP) systems used by each of its divisions. When Harris' engineering teams assemble a bid for building a communications system for a prospective customer, they typically tap its MRP systems to find supply chain and technical information, such as the cost, availability or quality record of a particular component or the voltage rating for a capacitor, says Bob Kriner, an electrical design engineer.

In October 2004, Harris launched a three-and-a-half-year project to help its engineers, procurement specialists and other employees access and use this information more effectively. The lattice of systems involved in the effort includes Expo, a homegrown portal that connects the four systems and helps hundreds of its engineers and procurement specialists track materials and purchasing data across its suppliers, says Janice Lindsay, vice president for strategic sourcing.

Vital to the success of the project was building in a search platform that would enable employees to effectively locate information about component costs, life-cycle status and other specifications from its 65 million-plus parts inventory. Harris builds fewer than 1 million of those parts, with the remainder distributed by thousands of suppliers, says Shivamber.

Harris selected a search and discovery offering from Endeca Technologies Inc. At the heart of the system is a "massive" data warehouse fed by a variety of databases throughout the company, says Shivamber. The tool, he says, features Web 2.0-type search capabilities that allow engineers and others to search for parts information "easily -- in an organized, Google-like format."

Mashing search capabilities into BI environments is a trend that has gained traction over the past few years, but isn't yet widespread, says Dan Vesset , an analyst at IDC. Mashups like the one in use at Harris "are a key component to making BI more pervasive, more visual," he says.

A few factors complicated Harris' initial efforts. When the project first started, a set of European regulations known as the Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive, or RoHS, was still being fleshed out, according to Lindsay. The regulations, which went into effect in 2006 and were updated last February, restrict or ban the use of certain chemicals and hazardous materials in electrical and electronic components. Other countries, such as China, impose a different set of thresholds, so the then-emerging European regulations made compliance "more complicated" for Harris, says Jan Jakobsze, a supply chain engineer.

In addition, the project team had to work with Endeca to meet Harris' own highly specified search requirements. Whereas some of Endeca's other clients might be used to searching against contextual data, Harris' engineers needed to search against more granular information "with precision" across more than 200 attributes for each component in its supply chain, says Tom Smura, the company's IT and supply chain manager.

Harris' project team has been able to work through those issues and make its vast supply chain considerably more collaborative -- and cost-effective -- through its BI-Web 2.0 mashup. In fact, Shivamber says that the project has already paid for itself through the cost savings achieved by each of the business divisions and system chargebacks that have been accrued to them.

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