Product Management, in Black and White

Zebra retools manufacturing process with Oracle Agile PLM applications.

by Fred Sandsmark, May 2010

Zebra Technologies is a rare beast in today’s business jungle: highly profitable, debt-free, innovative, and admired. Not content to blend into the scenery, executives from the Lincolnshire, Illinois-based company have taken bold steps to reinvent the company’s manufacturing operations—and the IT systems that support them.

Best known for bar code printers, Zebra has grown since 1969 to produce a variety of specialty printing and asset-management offerings, including RFID- and satellite-based solutions. Zebra now boasts a broad range of technology solutions to help customers identify, track, and manage critical assets more accurately and efficiently. These solutions are used by more than 90 percent of Global Fortune 500 companies.

Profit detailed Zebra’s migration from Baan 4C4 to Oracle E-Business Suite 12 in the May 2009 issue (see “Easing the Challenge of Integration”). But a problem persisted: 140 different data systems throughout the sprawling manufacturing firm related to the design and manufacture of products. Management decided the best way to consolidate these disparate systems was a product lifecycle management (PLM) solution.


Supporting Outsourced Manufacturing
In early 2008, Zebra had product data systems throughout the company, but none could be mistaken for global PLM. “If you look at best practices in our industry, PLM is a prerequisite to high performance,” says Shantanu Dhar, director, global PLM and process excellence at Zebra. “But we hardly had any kind of PLM worth the name.” Dhar and Andy McCollum, senior director, change management and process improvement at Zebra, were hired in 2008 to shepherd Zebra’s PLM transformation, with Dhar representing the business interests and McCollum handling IT responsibilities.

Zebra’s primary motivation for adopting a global PLM solution was a desire to outsource manufacturing to Asia. “Some of our competitors had already made this move, and they had a cost advantage on us,” McCollum recalls. Also, many of the components Zebra used in its products were already made in China, so moving manufacturing offshore offered logistical benefits.

To support outsourced manufacturing, Zebra chose Oracle’s Agile PLM applications in mid-2008—before Dhar and McCollum were hired to implement them. The selection of Agile PLM applications had three primary drivers: Zebra’s global contract manufacturer sang their praises, internal reviewers at Zebra determined that they were the easiest to use, and they could be implemented quickly.

Rapid Rollout
The Agile implementation schedule was equally tight. Zebra’s initial Agile training sessions were held in December 2008, and by April 2008 the first Agile modules went live.

“Within a four-month time span, we had Agile up and running for the company,” Dhar recalls. The aggressive schedule required many extra hours of work by the team.

Once Zebra’s Agile PLM applications team was trained, business leads from throughout the company were identified and enlisted in the design of the PLM workflows and later used as trainers during rollout to ensure broad-based buy-in. “We’ve been using a ‘train the trainer’ model,” explains Project Manager Brad Brown, who joined the team after the launch. “The same people who had given us the business input are the folks who have been leading the training classes.”

Populating the Agile system was an important early step. After some internal data scrubbing, an outside contractor migrated and duplicated data from several legacy systems—including a Windchill PLM system and some homegrown first-article inspection and corrective and preventive action (CAPA) systems. Data for approximately 30,000 items was eventually loaded into the Agile PLM applications.

The Agile Product Collaboration and Agile Engineering Collaboration modules launched first, without customization. “Our CIO, Don O’Shea, said that he wanted us to configure the packaged application but not customize it, so we can use Oracle for support,” McCollum explains.

Continued Growth
Today Zebra has global production and new product introduction workflows for all new product development. The Agile PLM applications run on Oracle Application Server on Linux, with Oracle Real Application Clusters (Oracle RAC) in a two-node cluster for the applications and a two-node cluster for the database. “We were one of the first Agile customers to use Oracle RAC with Linux,” Brown recalls. “We worked with Oracle Consulting to deploy it, and now it’s a standard.”

Agile PLM data is replicated in six locations—three Zebra sites in the U.S., two in Europe, and one in Asia Pacific—and each Zebra office has a local file manager and Oracle’s AutoVue server. This globally distributed architecture increases performance for employees accessing information from around the world. “A person located in our Guangzhou [China] office using the Web client has more or less the same level of performance as someone in the U.S.,” Brown explains. About 1,000 of Zebra’s 2,500 employees currently use Agile PLM applications, with about 150 sessions open at any given time. Also, representatives from Zebra’s contract manufacturing partner access Agile remotely via terminal services.

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