This is the first article of a two-part series on how Boston Gear, a manufacturer of motion-control products, found a collaboration solution to solve its communication problems. This first installment explains what motivated the company to look into collaboration technology. The second part covers how Boston Gear identified the features and requirements it needed from a collaboration technology solution.

In this highly mechanized world, most of us have stopped thinking about what makes the conveyor belt at the supermarket move groceries to the checkout clerk or what makes the automatic doors slide open. When we’re pumping gas, we don’t think about the drills that first explored for oil, the spigots on the tanks, or the flow-control valves at the refinery.

But John Wright still thinks about these mechanical components. As engineering manager for Boston Gear, a manufacturer now in its 125th year, he oversees everything that goes into what he describes as the company’s “integrated motion-control products.” That includes gears, motors (AC and DC), bearings, clutches (mechanical, electrical, or pneumatic), and brakes. Basically, if it makes something start, stop, speed up, or slow down, Boston Gear likely manufactures it.

Boston Gear’s products end up everywhere—from the supermarket conveyor belt to fans, agitators, oil refineries, textile plants, and sewage facilities. The intricacy of the engineering data that defines the parts is nearly mind-boggling: gear nomenclature, tooth formulas, backlash, torque, and horsepower requirements. The blueprints for any one item can be remarkably complex.

Maintaining inventory information and tracking all those parts is intense, as Boston Gear sits smack dab between a worldwide network of suppliers (mostly in Asia) and hundreds of distributors (mostly in North and South America). As a result, the enterprise faced a remarkable collaboration challenge: How could it keep track of bids, specifications, and change orders—multiple documents that represented, as Wright says, “their own version of the truth”? Just consider the impact if one specification changed, but not everyone in the manufacturing or distribution role was properly notified.

Bouncing blueprints around the world
Although the company was founded in 1877, Boston Gear isn’t anywhere near stodgy. It keeps up with technology because it has to. As Wright says, “We’re in a mature industry, and competition is tough.”

Up until a few years ago, when Boston Gear finalized a part blueprint, it would print it from its computer-aided design (CAD) system and mail it to the supplier on paper ranging from A size (the traditional 8 1/2″ x 11″) to D size (36″ x 24″). When the price of scanners came within the company’s reach, it began reducing the D-size drawings to A size and e-mailing them as an attached TIFF file. The reduction helped partners print plans easier on the receiving end. While the revamped approach was quicker, it was far from perfect.

“The problem with a TIFF file,” lamented Wright, “is that it’s a glorified fax copy. When you zoom in on it, the image starts breaking apart.” Wright needed vector file formats so that the image would retain its specificity. Worse, what with scanning and e-mailing files, “there were several versions of the truth out in the world somewhere. Whoever has it, that’s their version of the truth,” Wright said.

And maybe more critically, blueprints could still take 20 working days to get from Boston Gear to the engineering firm to the foundry—and there was no mechanism to alert Boston Gear when a blueprint was received at its final destination. Even if the company used expensive next-day air postage, it was impossible to know whether the blueprints got into the hands of the proper person, because of vacations, sick days, or other projects.

While Boston Gear tried hard to track delivery via a spreadsheet, it wasn’t always carefully maintained, for many of the same reasons that made confirmation of receipt sketchy. Compounding the challenge were the constant design changes, or engineering change orders (ECOs).

“There are always design changes,” explained Wright. “In a perfect world, the foundry would say they could make this cheaper. Then they’d amend the drawing, fax it back, and then we’d approve it and fax it back to them.” With so many integral partners in various time zones, even voice communication was difficult. And every time a change was approved, Wright had to ensure that four different engineering databases were updated with the information—one at the Quincy, MA, headquarters, and three others at plants in Lewisburg, NC, Charlotte, NC, and Florence, KY.

In addition, Boston Gear has begun outsourcing some of its manufacturing, which only increased the need for a collaborative solution.

The need for collaboration
What Wright really wanted was something to eliminate the paper-and-update nightmare—a system that would enable Boston Gear to collaborate in real time, with everyone working from a single electronic document. The “Holy Grail” he sought, was “one version of the truth, easily accessible,” he said.

But besides a paper-replacement system, Wright also wanted two other key features: a system that would handle any document (not just engineering documents) and one that would work with a garden-variety Web browser, without requiring users to load software or even so much as a .dll file. The reason was simple: Given the time-zone issues, Boston Gear needed to make sure that anybody could log into and communicate via the system, either when at home or on the road.

Once he knew what he wanted, and what he didn’t, Wright began the arduous tasks of reviewing and investigating technology. He ended up looking at more than 80 different engineering systems, including product data management (PDM) software and other collaboration software.

In January 2002, Boston Gear began implementing NetVendor’s E.MBRACE Collaborative Workspace software, and the company is in the pilot phases of the project. While it’s just been a few short months, Wright relates that the software is already reducing cycle time and increasing efficiency.

Learn how Boston Gear’s collaboration effort is going

Stay tuned for the second part of this story, as TechRepublic details how the new collaborative technology is not only dramatically changing engineering processes at Boston Gear but business processes across the enterprise.