As portions of the data model are completed, Whirlpool populates the database with information. That, says Nickerson, is relatively straightforward. Not so straightforward is deploying the search tool for finding the parts data. It all depends on the definition of search, which Nickerson continues to mold to make the system as easy to use as possible. “We don’t need the ability to search for something,” he says. “We need the ability to find something. We don’t want people to get ‘no results found’ when they over-constrain a search, and we don’t want them to get thousands of results, either.”
That’s why Nickerson believes familiar search tools don’t work well enough. Navigating a database — a term frequently applied to explorations conducted on Google or Yahoo — can involve long, circuitous routes that are too time-consuming and not rewarding enough for corporate design and engineering. Instead, because engineers are searching through structured databases, Whirlpool’s search engines can pinpoint specific design criteria more accurately and efficiently. Moreover, in the business world, the search interface has to interact constantly with the user, anticipating the user's needs — especially when the user isn’t sure what he or she is looking for. That type of technology, says Nickerson, “allows you to find what you are looking for much more quickly” — although at Whirlpool, as with all search engine development projects, a perfect system is still a work in progress.
Whirlpool’s data management project is too new for Nickerson to be able to quantify the benefits. But he is convinced that his user-generated taxonomy, with a find tool that works the way those same users think, will eventually result in a system that can further the innovation process. Considering how few manufacturing data systems actually support product development, if Nickerson accomplishes just a portion of his goals, it will be a breakthrough in content sharing. For Whirlpool, that will surely be worth the effort.
Michael Cooke is a principal with Booz & Company based in Chicago. He advises automakers and suppliers on how to increase IT capabilities while simultaneously reducing related costs.
Richard Turner, president of Convergence Data Services, has 20 years’ experience helping engineering companies improve their effectiveness in product development and data management.
Stephen Chen is a senior associate with Booz & Company in Dallas. He specializes in devising information technology strategies and leading business transformations for consumer and automotive clients.