WHILE used by over 7000 companies around the world, the latest version of Microsoft’s Biztalk Server looks set to have major implications for the manufacturing industry.
Released last month, a key feature of BizTalk Server 2006 R2 is that it allows users to manage RFID environments from Windows, making the adoption of this exciting technology even easier. It also provides native support for Applicability Statement 2 (AS2), used to enable EDI between businesses using the Internet.
US-based Steve Sloan, Sr. product manager for BizTalk, says the latest release builds on the Business Process Management (BPM) and Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) capabilities of prior releases.
“The idea is to really simplify, by either connecting or automating, business processes. The process server really serves that central role,” he told Manufacturers’ Monthly on his recent trip to Australia for the launch
According to Sloan a key feature of the release is an adaptor pack to improve connectivity. “Connecting lines of business systems is something that we want to make even simpler for people, especially those who are building .Net based applications.
“Then we have something called ESP guidance. As you know, there are a number of design patterns that a company can choose to implement their SOA.
“We took one of the most common design patterns and looked across a number of customers that had large, successful applications.
“Using the common characteristics, we packaged a set of guides and some ancillary code that helps to use the .Net framework plus BizTalk server to get companies up and running more quickly.
“This is really about simplifying interoperability between systems inside of the company as well as between the systems of organisations plus to the edge of that enterprise, extending the way you connect, even further out.
“It can be used for EDI, with more electronic based communication, or RFID to do something like track and trace; one of the most common applications.
“Not only do we make it simpler to connect to the RFID readers, but we also bring that data back into the core of the enterprise, to your SAP or JDE system, for example.
“Sure some systems understand where all of your assets are in the supply chain, but it only matters if a person can make a decision about it, either they automated it or it comes to them at their desktop.”
Sloan says it’s simple to connect to the RFID.
“We’ve worked with the large reader manufacturers, to create a simple interface so users can just plug and play on all those devices. Plus we have a business rules editor that sits in that RFID server.
“The editor correlates the different reads within the plant to give users visibility of their products in the supply chain.
According to Sloan, the real value is when you pull that data from the factory floor back up to managers and individuals that can make decisions.
“Again you can automate those business processes because there’s a natural language interface. You can go into your Outlook inbox, and click some boxes to make rule changes. It’s that simple, there’s no need to go back into the application and write new code.”
RFID and the supply chain
Sloan says the biggest use of RFID in the manufacturing industry will be within the supply chain, especially for track and trace in the supply chain and asset management.
“Logistics company Chep, for example, uses RFID tags to track their assets.
“They need to know where their pallets are, and know how quickly they can turn them around etc.
“So if they know where their pallets are, and are shipping your goods, they know where your goods are.
“This sort of secondary business, or ancillary value, is becoming clear to people using that technology to track their own things. Now they realise if they can provide the data really rich and meaningful then they can provide other information about the business.”
Sloan says he expects RFID to really take off now with the price of tags falling and more software available to collate the information.
“Passive RFID tags are now down to about five cents a unit and it’s much simpler to connect the hardware and the software. At the moment we’re in partnership with Intel where they’ve come up with a special chip that makes it much less expensive for the RFID readers.
“And then finally you have solutions providers who are now experienced and can be very helpful.
“So you have this combination of all these factors coming together, plus Microsoft’s goal to take a platform approach to RFID, to make it simple. When we talk about readers, let’s make it like plugging in a mouse.
“We’re also deploying a new edition of BizTalk called Branch Initiative at $US1800 per unit, that’s less than one tenth of the price of this software historically.
“What we’re doing is taking down all of the barriers to RFID adoption,” Sloan said.
A user’s story
Miguel Herrera, web & technical lead with Visy Industries says the company is a long time user of BizTalk.
“Back in 2002, Visy started to focus on e-commerce, and adopted BizTalk 2002, which met our business needs then, but we didn’t really implement many solutions.
“But in the past year, we’ve invested quite a bit of effort and money into e-commerce; consolidating the different solutions that we had in place,” Herrera told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“Whatever e-business we were doing with our Australian customers, we wanted to have a common platform to do it in, and BizTalk offered us that.
“It delivered us a platform that would process or translate documents, plus it gave us tracking and alerting functionality, and management of the end-to-end process including orders coming in and dispatch advices going out.”
Herrera says he has seen a major growth in electronic processing in recent years.
“The value add for us is to be able to decrease costs in the ordering process essentially, and BizTalk enables us to rapidly develop solutions with our customers, for electronic ordering, that’s really our main focus.”
Herrera says he has found working with BizTalk 2006 was logical and straightforward for Visy’s customers, with migration very simple. “We’ve migrated about 200-plus trading partners so far with another 50 or so to go.
“There has been no impact on them. It’s more about how we’ve structured our solutions internally to give us better tracking and alerting. What it has done for us though, it has enabled us to offer more options to our trading partners.”
According to Herrera, this latest version has also helped him with his EDI and RFID projects.
“With the previous version of BizTalk, we couldn’t cover our EDI needs as much, but with BizTalk 2006, we’ve been able to consolidate quite a lot of solutions that were external to the whole BizTalk environment.
“Same with RFID, Visy was one of the early adopters of RFID technology.
“We want to continue to invest money in RFID, because obviously it’s one of those technologies that will only continue to get more popular, it has value add for the customer,” Herrera said.