A flexible manufacturing facility in a remote location is in full operation. Machines are busy producing parts, automated robots are helping to assemble them into finished products, and conveyor systems are transporting them to a packing and shipping bay. Above the din of the metal cutting operations and assembly activities, a human manager can be seen in the background.
Required design information is routinely collected from distributed customers in different parts of the globe and used by process planning knowhow software (migrating from another computer located in a neighboring country) to help identify the manufacturing steps involved, then detailed machine instructions are generated by software from yet another partner’s computer located in a neighboring state. From time to time, a resident control computer flashes a signal informing the human manager of the parts being assembled and other work in progress including those being packed and shipped.
This scenario provides a snapshot of the future of manufacturing in this country and throughout the world. With remarkable advances in information technology, computer networks (especially the Internet), and manufacturing integration, the achievement of a truly global manufacturing enterprise seems to be within reach.
Smaller and mid-sized enterprise in remote parts of the world will increasingly become part of this revolution by forming partnerships with larger organizations. The notion of such “virtual” partnerships, in which distributed organizations form “virtual teams” and develop products for a changing customer-driven market forms the basis of virtual enterprises (VE).
Types of VEs
There are broadly two major categories of virtual enterprises, inter-nation and intra-nation VEs. Inter-nation VEs (or simply international VEs) are those whose members extend beyond national boundaries. For example, consider the electronics-manufacturing domain.
Project integrators and design partner organizations may be located in California while process engineering team members and resources are in Texas; in addition, the actual assembly and manufacturing activities can occur in various countries in Asia (such as Taiwan or Singapore). In an intra-nation VE, a consortium’s partners are within a specific nation’s boundaries.
Importance of the Emerging VE Model and the Role of the Internet
At the onset of this new millennium, manufacturing organizations worldwide are collaborating and functioning as a virtual enterprise. With revolutionary advances in information technology (IT) and electronic communications serving as catalysts, the Internet has emerged as a powerful integration vehicle for the realization of the global marketplace.
Private and government organizations have recognized the potential of the Internet as a VE facilitator and have begun to implement distributed collaboration approaches using the Internet as a backbone.
CREATION OF VIRTUAL ENTERPRISES
The challenges facing VE implementation can be grouped under technical and cultural. One of the major technical problems is achieving seamless exchange of information as well as the integration of the myriad of activities involved in designing and building products.
Technologies and Frameworks for the Realization of VEs
The Internet, by far, is the most versatile communication vehicle that can be used to create and manage VEs. It is being widely used by business enterprises globally to exchange information in all phases of a product’s life cycle. The Internet can be viewed as “a network of networks” that is scalable and can connect remote corners of our world.
The Distributed Component Object Model (DCOM)
The Microsoft distributed component object model (DCOM) also referred to as “COM on the wire” uses a protocol called object remote procedure call (ORPC) (Microsoft, 2002). DCOM is used substantially on the Windows platform. Microsoft provides common object model (COM) implementations for Windows and Solaris platforms while other companies provide implementations for UNIX, Linux, and other mainframe platforms.
Java and Jini Technology
Java remote method invocation (RMI) relies on a protocol called the Java remote method protocol. Java relies on object serialization, which allows objects to be transmitted as a stream (Raj, 2002). The major drawback is that both the server and client objects must be written in Java. However, Java RMI can be implemented on a variety of heterogeneous operating systems (from UNIX to Windows) with one restriction: there should be a Java Virtual Machine implementation for that platform.
Activities and Phases in the Creation of Internet-Based VEs
There are no structured methods or steps to support the creation of VEs today. However, by addressing the major issues involved to establish, sustain, and function as a VE, industrial organizations can develop their own approaches to successfully adopt VE practices.
The Internet is a powerful vehicle for VEs to be created and deployed. This chapter discussed the major Internet based approaches, tools, and technologies available today to establish virtual enterprises. Other supporting technologies can also be used on the Internet to promote better communication among distributed team members in a VE. An example of such a supporting technology is virtual reality, which can play a major role in the functioning of VEs. Distributed team members can communicate effectively using this powerful technology from various locations. With the development of Internet2, the use of virtual reality for VE task accomplishments is expected to become more widespread.