Manufacturing News

Tracking your business on “Virtual Earth”

Peter Ulm, the new business development manager for Microsoft’s Virtual Earth business across Australia and New Zealand, spoke to Paula Wallace about how new map detail and feature enhancements are empowering manufacturers to visualise their supply chains and gain greater business intelligence.

MANUFACTURING companies around the world are pushing to innovate and deliver, whilst at the same time trying to optimise complex business processes. Managing growth and scaling new technology are critical business concerns as old technologies cease to work as effectively as before.

According to Peter Ulm, successful supply chains need agile technologies for profitability, reduced process complexity, and improved insight into customer needs.

That led Microsoft to add more features to its Virtual Earth platform which can assist manufacturers to search, locate and visualise supply chain and other locally relevant information.

The Microsoft Virtual Earth platform is an integrated set of services that combines advanced viewing options, including exclusive bird’s eye and hybrid views, aerial and enhanced 3D models with innovative mapping, location and search functionality.

“One of the benefits of Virtual Earth is that it can easily be scaled up or down to suit businesses of all sizes,” said Ulm.

He describes the platform as part of the company’s “new generation of seamless, service-centric experiences”. That is, Microsoft is aiming to provide something that is focused on the customer, personalised, integrated and available anywhere, regardless of connectivity or device.

The service-oriented architecture within Virtual Earth enables manufacturing firms to easily develop solutions that use features such as imagery, dynamic maps, driving directions and data visualisation and reporting capabilities.

To take a hypothetical example: Joe’s Plastics produces products which it transports locally and overseas, and employs around 100 people. How could Joe benefit from using Virtual Earth?

According to Peter Ulm, Virtual Earth could be an asset to Joe’s Plastics in a number of ways, namely strengthening customer connections, improving business insight and growth through greater innovation.

“With the Microsoft Virtual Earth platform, Joe’s Plastics could create an immersive experience enabling them to better visualise their supply chain,” said Ulm.

The company could also seamlessly integrate the Virtual Earth platform with existing websites, applications, and services to deliver highly visual, locally relevant manufacturing information to customers.

“They could allow their customers to visualise manufacturing sites through exclusive bird’s eye and hybrid views, and offering visuals of shipments in transit,” said Ulm.

The Virtual Earth imagery and data is a static representation of a map rather than real time. However, Joe’s Plastics could easily implement and integrate RFID or GPS technology into the Virtual Earth environment to create a way for employees to track in real time assets as part of a broader supply chain process.

“Similarly, you can integrate Virtual Earth with business intelligence applications to visualise information, such as operational performance per location or regional sales statistics,” said Ulm.

Users can visualise data by integrating line-of-business applications with location-based information, such as GeoRSS feeds or manufacturing schedule status per location.

“You can improve control over shipment and delivery schedules by tracking and visualising status reports and potential risks on a Virtual Earth map,” said Ulm.

Virtual Earth operates across the Internet or a company’s intranet. Users can access it from virtually any device capable of receiving web data. After users submit information, the web server requests a map from Virtual Earth using technologies such as JavaScript APIs or SOAP-based HTML. Users then receive content-rich maps.

The Virtual Earth platform enables easy integration with existing investments through an open standards platform. Organisations can use Virtual Earth’s flexible API’s to integrate with their existing business data and interoperate with their information systems providing “unlimited opportunities for customisation and personalisation”, says Ulm.

“It’s extremely intuitive and easy to use with no formal training required. It also integrates easily in to other common desktop applications such as Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft SharePoint.”

As a web based application, Virtual Earth supports most browsers including IE6 and IE7, Firefox 2.0, Safari 2 and 3 on Mac with operating system support provided for all systems for 2D and any version beyond Windows XP SP2 for 3D.

From weather to warehousing: BP’s experience

Energy giant BP now uses Virtual Earth in its Hurricane Management System (HMS), which combines the 3-D satellite imagery mapping software and real-time weather data with a visual representation of BP’s people and facilities.

The HMS was originally conceived to respond to the narrow threat of hurricanes. However, the architecture of the solution readily lends itself to extensibility. Supply chain data, for example, is being imported into the solution to identify what parts are stored in the company’s various warehouses, which will expedite their retrieval to start repairs after an incident such as a natural disaster.

The real-time locations of ships and helicopters are being added to accelerate the dispatch of supplies to production and drilling platforms as part of rescue and aid efforts. All these assets are data sets that can be easily imported and displayed in exactly the same manner as the original data sets.

Beyond enriching the original HMS, BP is interested in creating new applications that take advantage of the solution’s data visualisation and mapping intelligence capabilities.

For example, a drilling unit could use the Microsoft application environment to overlay deep-water current data with drilling platform locations to identify when currents will hinder drilling operations.

The solution uses existing BP infrastructure, including the Microsoft application environment. It saves BP crisis managers hours each day by automatically consolidating data from 20 sources.

Traditionally, BP managed this process with wall-mounted paper charts and pushpins to represent storm paths and employee locations. The crisis team would use other physical tools to measure the distance between a hurricane and BP’s various facilities.

Microsoft partner IDV created a working prototype of the solution for BP in just two weeks taking advantage of BP’s existing Microsoft-based infrastructure. The developers used SQL Server Integration Services to pull continually updated asset data into the solution’s SQL Server spatial data warehouse.

The same technology enabled them to pull in personnel data from an Oracle PeopleSoft database, and base-map information from their ESRI Oracle database.

The solution also incorporates real-time weather feeds from external sources such as ImpactWeather and Horizon Marine through the use of web services that easily integrate with SQL Server.

The use of a web portal eliminates the need to install special desktop software. This cuts client deployment time and costs to zero, and enables any authorised user to immediately access the solution from anywhere in the world.

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