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Current Situation

The complexity of today's products and the development speed of mechatronic products require an intensive communication and collaboration in interdisciplinary development teams. The geographically distributed locations of these teams, common development processes with suppliers and integrators as well as the integration of external specialists impede a fast and smooth development process, since the collaboration and the coordination require a large effort of time and money. Within a previous work in the WTT Whoch6-consortium, the need for a methodological and technological support was detected within many interviews with industrial partners.

Prior to this project, a situation analysis was done by ETH Zurich. Many industrial representatives were interviewed about their usage of communication and collaboration means. ("How do you do? - Industrial use of methods and technologies for communication and collaboration").
Within an e-mail questioning and in personal interviews, totally 65 industries were asked. We found out by this investigation that modern communication tools like video and data conferencing systems, as well as digital whiteboards are rarely used in industry.
In addition, many users tend to use communication technologies only for typical activities like presentations, polls, and synchronization of the further steps, as well as for the definition of tasks. A distributed common work in the meaning of an efficient collaboration is rarely done by any technological support, but mainly in meetings with physical presence. This is due to the limited interaction capabilities and due the poor quality of today's systems, but also due to the missing users' knowledge on the technology and which tools could be used for the required processes. Very often it also can be noticed that companies invested in a technical infrastructure, but did neither teach the users how to use it nor did change the processes or the way of working.

The study also showed that communication and collaboration tools are not used very efficiently today and which problems occur. However, it also showed an increasing need for supporting teamwork over networks, since today's development and innovation processes require an intensive international collaboration of specialists from different disciplines.
Although many companies invested in videoconferencing systems and CSCW-programs, this technology is not used or only used inefficiently. Instead of using such systems, a lot of time and money is spent for traveling, which poorly uses the capacity of the involved specialists. Valuable development time is wasted, since ad-hoc meetings to solve actual problems are not possible.
The study also shows that the little and inefficient usage of technological communication and collaboration means has technical reasons (complex systems, insufficiently supported business processes, poor transmission quality), but also methodological and socio-cultural reasons.

Project cocoon

Within this project, it is investigated how the current technology is used today. Within workshops it will be demonstrated, which business processes can be supported by the usage of new methods and tools.

The concept, development, and testing of a 'meeting assistant' should simplify the organization and the realization of meetings over a network. This will lead to a more frequently and more efficient of an IT-supported collaboration environment.

The analysis of real business cases in such a new environment will give results on acceptance, efficiency, and application fields of such a collaborative environment.

Goals of the Project

The economic goals lie in an increase of the industrial partners' competitiveness by accelerating the reaction and development time, and reducing the costs at the same time. The results of the project will be published in scientific papers, but also introduced later on to other industries by talks, seminars, and workshops.

The scientific goals of the project can be split up into 3 fields:

Analysis

Within a first stage, the results of the pre-study are verified. The problems of the industry when using a technological infrastructure are clustered into the fields technical, methodological, and socio-cultural aspects.

Development of Solutions

With a team, solutions are developed for the three clusters (see Figure 1) and implement by the industrial partners.

Research on Acceptance and Efficiency

An investigation of the industrial business processes under optimized conditions gives results on acceptance, efficiency, and usage of this IT-supported environment for communication and collaboration.

Analysis

The results of the pre-study prior to this project (How do you do? - Industrial Usage of Methods and Technologies for Communication and Collaboration) are scientifically verified. For doing so, the early stages of product development of the partners' projects are investigated, since these processes require a very intensive communication and collaboration. This analysis is done in the fields technical problems, methodological problems, and socio-cultural problems, as well as in their interdependencies (see Figure 1).

problemkreis_eng

Figure 1: Problem fields when using an IT-infrastructure for communication and collaboration

Analysis of Technical Problems

Deliverables: Requirements list for IT-systems that are adapted to the specific business processes. Showing the need for a further development of a new interaction technology. Verification of the point found in the basic investigation.

Analysis of Methodological Problems

Deliverables: List of processes to be optimized. Enlargement and adaptation of existing processes. Integration (consideration) of the technical infrastructure into existing business processes.

Analysis of socio-cultural aspects

Deliverables: List of acceptance hindrances. List of possible acceptance catalyzers.

Development of Solutions

The detailed problems from the analysis stage result in requirements lists or catalog, which give important input for research, but also to industry, which is developing components for a netbased collaboration. Within this project, only some solutions for selected problems will be generated and realized in a prototype. These will be problems, whose solutions will maximally affect the communication and collaboration over a network and which will also improve the acceptance and the efficiency of such systems.

Providing a solution for technical problems

Deliverables: Also other companies could benefit from the results, since an outcome of the analysis is a catalog of 'technical means for business processes'.

Deliverables: Meeting Assistant" In order to solve the problems from the planning to the start of a meeting, a 'meeting assistant' tool will be developed within this project. Using this tool, all processes from the planning of a meeting up to its start should be simplified. It offers functionalities for coordination, information, and invitation of persons, the availability of rooms and the information of their current state are combined with the possibility to pre-configure the meeting environment (including the room control). It even allows an automatic start-up and an automatic communication set-up. Thus, the organizer of a meeting will have a tool, which supports him in the following tasks:

The meeting assistant should simplify the planning of meeting and thus should also allow spontaneous meetings. This will increase the acceptance for using an IT-supported communication and collaboration environment.

Solution of Methodological Problems

Most of the business processes and methods are based on approved models. Like the optimization of the technical infrastructure and placed in that environment, the existing models are verified whether they can be transferred into an IT-supported collaborative environment or not.
The V-model is an interesting approach for an adaptation. It is currently introduced in medical technology and in automotives (BMW) (see Figure 2):

V-Model

The behavior of complex products - in particular mechatronic systems - is characterized by interdependencies amongst the individual components. Therefore, also an integrated and interdisciplinary development approach is necessary. This requires that a communication across the traditional borders between mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and computer science can take place in the early stages of product development. This requirement is fulfilled by an interdisciplinary team, which bases on the capabilities of communication and collaboration. Furthermore, the success of a product depends on the ability of a team to create a consensus on the given tasks, for the process and the corresponding functions of the team members. Today, the coordination and the exchange of information between the team members in a net-based teamwork is is very time consuming, being additionally impeded by the different time zones.
The situation of geographically distributed tasks in different time zones and the resulting need of net-based collaboration is not covered by the classic view of the serial product development process. The need of collaboration within a mechatronic product development process is clearly represented in the so-called V-model [2]. The V-model is a guideline for planning and for realizing development projects in information technology, taking into account the complete life cycle of a product. Unlike the classical phase model, the V-model only defines activities but no strict dependency in time.
However, although the V-model comes from software development, it should be applied now to a mechatronic product development process, as it is shown in Figure 2:

v_modell_eng

Figure 2: The V-model in product development

If this transfer of the model into product development is successful, the rules and methods, which are currently applied within information technology, can also be applied for product development. Communication and collaboration is the basis for applying the V-model, which have to take place in the individual blocks, but also between the individual blocks. The V-model shows very clearly, where collaboration has to take place.
Thus, a continuous communication and collaboration ensures, that:

Delivrables: Within this work package it will be investigated whether the V-model can be adapted to the product development process, and where in the model collaboration takes place. In a next step, it will be investigated, how this collaboration is covered by today's existing IT-collaboration tools and which additional requirements are not covered yet.

Solution of Socio-cultural Problems

Most of the existing problems are based on missing knowledge about the IT-supported collaboration environment. Very often, the user is supplied with a new technology, but without any further training on the system. Due to a lack of time and in order to not disturb the running product development process, a short introduction to the system is given by the suppliers of such systems, but mainly on technical aspects and not focused on the process. However, the knowledge about human behavior, the working culture, useful applications of IT-infrastructure, applicable methods and about their usage to increase the working quality and the efficiency is as important as the knowledge about handling the infrastructure. This kind of training cannot be offered by the suppliers, since they do not have the interdisciplinary competences concerning technology, processes, methods, and didactics. Within the analysis of this work package, relevant aspects for teaching are systematically realized. The didactical preparation results in different training programs, which are offered to the involved industrial partners as workshops or seminars in order to increase the acceptance and the efficiency of an IT-based collaboration. The results will be also taught to students of the research partner in order to optimally prepare future generations of engineers to these changed requirements. In addition, seminars and talks will provide the elaborated know-how also to companies that are not involved in the project.
Deliverables: Education and training programs, workshops, seminars, lectures, talks...

Analysis of Efficiency and Acceptance

Up to now, there is no analysis that gives an exact number on the efficiency of net-based collaboration rooms. Thus, interested users do not find any numbers on possible benefits of such a new environment. Within this project, several investigations will be done with different user groups (students and industrial users), having also different scenarios like an experimental and teaching environment at the university or real business cases of the industrial partners. As a result, we expect better knowledge about the acceptance for a technologically supported communication and collaboration environment. In order to perform the user tests, objective measuring methods have to be elaborated, which allow to measure the efficiency of the net-based working environment, but allow to measure the so-called 'cognitive load' of the user. Both aspects have an important impact on the acceptance of such a new environment and thus on its sustainable usage within a company. The analysis of real business processes within a company will show the impact of a communication and collaboration environment concerning a reduction of costs, reduction of time, satisfaction of the team members, etc.
Deliverables: Generation of suitable test scenarios, which require an IT-support but no prior knowledge of the users.
Performing user studies in industry and at university.
Generation of an action catalog to increase the IT-acceptance for collaborative business processes.

 

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