As I meet with manufacturing executives confronting the new economic realities of the post financial-crisis world, one theme resonates over and over; manufacturers want to better leverage what they already have to save money and innovate.  As one heavy truck industry executive recently asked me before the holidays, "Please show me how we can better use what we've already invested in Microsoft." 

leverage While there is no single answer to that question,  I believe that the most important asset that manufacturers needs to better exploit is their own engineering knowledge.  A recent conversation with a leading automotive engineer may help illustrate this point. 

This engineer was about to release an important update to an existing model vehicle.  I asked him to talk me through the improvements he was adding to the vehicle.  One of those improvements involved a change to the door structure, specifically a door hinge.  When I asked him how he went about designing that hinge he mentioned he did so from scratch.  When I probed further he mentioned how frustrating it was trying to search across five different systems to find other hinge designs and engineering test data.  It's not that he or anyone else on the team was excited about engineering a door hinge, but the re-use tools were slow, cumbersome and eventually cost the project extra time to market.

  Christoper Yeung at Cambridge defines engineering re-use as follows: "Engineering re-use is a business strategy of using the firm's existing assets in new applications to create new assets.  In other words, re-use in general aims to exploit the value of economy of scale of assets by leveraging resources spent in one application in multiple other situations to reduce time to market, development resources, costs and risks."

Engineering re-use has been a long-time goal for manufacturers, but the real results have been elusive.  Many knowledge management practioners have espoused the importance of building these "uber" systems to trap and capture knowledge inside organizations, but have failed to deliver the right technology, process or behavioral change necessary to execute on such systems.

Microsoft certainly doesn't have all the answers here, but I do feel confident that we are making progress with better tools and partnerships.  Products like Sharepoint are enabling new engineering re-use capabilities through Enterprise Content ManagementEnterprise Search and Social Computing.  Partnerships with leading PLM providers like Siemens and  Dassault are enabling better integration of engineering data in productivity and collaboration applications like Microsoft Office System.

Now is the time to pursue engineering re-use as a critical cost saving and innovation driver in manufacturing.  I welcome your thoughts and feedback on how your company or work team is succeeding through this strategy.