Sensors Mag

Visibility into Visibility

March 1, 2006 By: Barbara G. Goode, Sensors

In meteorology the word visibility refers to the distance that can be seen clearly; in marketing, visibility is a measure of how much a product or its advertising is seen. A newer definition that's emerged in the realm of business process management (BPM) will increasingly depend on sensors.

In an article on the BPM Institute Web site, Forrester Research defines BPM as the designing, executing, and optimizing of cross-functional business processes that incorporate systems, processes, and people.

The connection between BPM and sensors may not be immediately obvious, but it will become increasingly apparent to those who know sensing technologies. (To others it will simply be a part of the landscape as sensors increasingly provide data that's necessary and expected.) It derives from the maturation and proliferation of sensors as well as the related technologies that enable sophisticated communication and use of sensor data. Thanks to these developments, sensors can provide an increasingly clearer picture of the world and any of its ecosystems including business enterprises.

Three Phases of Visibility

In his introduction to Sensors' February Wireless & M2M newsletter, Wayne Manges refers to this as "operational visibility." He says visibility is a result of dramatic transitions affecting manufacturing and raw materials processing systems. And, he points out, it is appearing in multiple stages.

Anyone who's been around supply chain management recognizes the impact of RFID (which some people consider a sensor) on that growing discipline—especially with heavy hitters such as Wal-Mart behind it. Supply chain visibility, as it's known, is the first phase. The second phase, asset visibility—monitoring the health of machines, for instance—is maturing as sensors are put into place to enable predictive maintenance.

"The third phase, yet to receive much recognition, is process visibility," says Manges, adding that this "will bring the benefits of visibility to the transition of raw material to product." And, he warns, companies that don't take advantage of these benefits will not be able to compete with those that do. Process visibility is nothing more than sensor data, integrated with other data, to inform business process management.

New Possibilities

As Tom Kevan discusses in his monthly column Extreme Data, sensors will increasingly become integral informants for "enterprise intelligence." If the sensors you design into systems aren't already feeding data into your company's enterprise software, they soon will—or should. And sensors designed into OEM products will enable new services (not just features) for customers, and be able to report back information to you.

In case you ever doubted it, engineering is not just product or system development—it provides a view to the larger picture.

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