There are two fundamental routes available to materials engineers specifying a system for composite data management. These are to get a ‘commercial off-the-shelf’ (COTS) system or to develop a system via an in-house information technology project. There also are options between these two ends of the spectrum, in which a third-party provides some relevant information technology then delivers consultancy services to customize this and build an in-house system.
The Material Data Management Consortium has elected, as far a possible, to follow a ‘COTS’ approach – maximizing the quantity of off-the-shelf software that is common to all or any users, and minimizing the quantity of customization required. Why is this?
Building materials information systems requires an unusual blend of materials engineering and knowledge technology expertise. Engineering enterprises want to focus on their core competencies, not on building up and retaining a critical mass of expertise during this area. The MDMC has elected to work with Granta Design, a specialist materials information technology company.
Sharing best-in-class technology and costs
A COTS system shares and re-uses core technology and solutions developed and proven elsewhere, whereas an in-house approach must ‘reinvent the wheel’. This fact is at the guts of the MDMC approach, in which pre-competitive collaboration helps to develop and maintain software that's employed by all of the membership – and available to other organizations in the GRANTA MI system. As well as getting a far better end-product by pooling ideas and feedback from many users, this approach means organizations share the value of developing the system, instead of bearing the full cost themselves.
Cost of updating & maintenance
The most common reason for the failure of in-house projects (or those where the software requires a high degree of customization) is that the costs of maintenance and on-going development are greatly underestimated. IT systems got to develop in line with new needs and must answer changes in hardware, operating systems, or corporate IT policies. Such maintenance is typically inbuilt to COTS approaches – particularly where an active user community sustains the system. It is rarely well-understood in either in-house systems, or those built with external contractors that believe a high degree of upfront customization and development work.
So what are the drawbacks of a COTS approach? Obvious potential issues, particularly given the way in which most composite data is tied to the actual application during which the composite is employed, are flexibility and adaptableness. there's the danger that any off-the-shelf system cannot handle the actual hierarchy of data, data types, and analyses required by the user company. And there's also the danger that it'll become its own ‘island’ of data, into which composite data are often read, but with a limited ability to form use of this data thanks to poor connectivity with the remainder of the company’s IT infrastructure.
The good news is that today’s best practice materials information management systems can overcome these potential barriers, allowing flexibility in the structure of their databases, and providing open integration with third-party tools. The message to anyone specifying such a system for composites is that they ought to ensure that these capabilities are built into the wants for their system.