The Assembly Line Gets a Web Interface

Start-up Datasweep makes manufacturing info updates available on the Internet

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration likes to know what parts and processes are used to assemble medical equipment. This lays a big record-keeping burden on Intuitive Surgical Inc., a Mountain View, Calif.-based manufacturer of surgical robots.

The company collects a lot of information during assembly, says Don Chamberlain, a senior analyst. But, he adds, the company was writing it on paper. Faced with the need to make that information more accessible, Intuitive Surgical turned to Datasweep Inc., a vendor of manufacturing execution systems (MES).

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Datasweep Inc.

Location: 55 Almaden Boulevard, Suite 600, San Jose, Calif. 95113

Telephone: (408) 350-7300

Web: www.datasweep.com

Niche: Manufacturing data collection and analysis

Why it's worth watching: Its Web-based portal gives external access to near-real-time order status and tracks custom orders.

Company officers: Vladimir Preysman, co-founder, president and CEO Kevin Chao, co-founder and vice president of engineering

Milestones: 1998: Founded Sept. 1999: First product available Oct. 1999: second round of venture funding July 2000: Version 3.0 released

Employees: 85; 400% annual growth projected

Burn money: $14 million from Accel Partners and Mohr, Davidow Ventures

Products/pricing: Datasweep Advantage 3.0; installations start at around $150,000 without services; about $300,000 with services

Customers: Flextronics International Ltd., Intuitive Surgical Inc., Everdream Corp., KLA-Tencor Corp., Netro Corp., Acma Computers Inc. and Harmonic Inc.

Partners: Agile Software Corp., webPlan Inc., Microsoft Corp., Pittiglio Rabin Todd & McGrath LLC, Strategic Information Group Inc. and Oracle Corp.

Red flags for IT: Established players in manufacturing execution systems are also adding Web access. Most clients today are in high-tech manufacturing.
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Datasweep's sole product, Datasweep Advantage, is a Web-enabled application suite written in Java that puts PCs on the manufacturing line, where assembly operators type or swipe bar codes to enter the details of components used in goods such as medical instruments and computers.

PC clients run Windows NT Workstation or Windows 2000 Professional, while the back end requires Windows NT or 2000 Server with a Microsoft SQL Server or an Oracle8i database for data storage. Advantage also accepts data transfers from automated machinery such as robot assemblers and testers and stores work instructions, test and quality records, and usage history.

The Advantage

Advantage is similar to existing MESs, says Kenneth Brant, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc. But "their ability to provide a manufacturing genealogy of how products are assembled in combination with Internet-centricity and rapid projection implementation is what makes them an interesting company," he says.

Datasweep says it can automate an assembly line in three months. "That's a big change from the traditional MES project implementation [of 24 months]," Brant says. The other big difference between Datasweep and its competitors, he says, is its ability to feed near-real-time assembly-line information to a Web site so that customers can track the status of an item being built.

That capability sold Allen Lee, president of ACMA Computers Inc. in Fremont, Calif., on Advantage. His company assembles between 6,000 and 9,000 CPUs per month, all made to order. Tracking an order was easy until a unit was being built. Then it "kind of went into a black hole," Lee says. Sales representatives who needed to answer a customer's questions on order status ended up talking to the people on the shop floor, interfering with production and cutting the line's efficiency, he says.

Now, salespeople can find an answer through Datasweep 90% of the time, says Lee. Six months after installing Advantage in March last year, the production average per person rose from 85 to 111 units, he says. But he doesn't credit Datasweep with all of that improvement; the project also included simplifying internal processes and training, he says.

Moreover, the internal quality assurance reject rate has dropped to 1.02% from a high of 19%, he says, due to his staff's new ability to quickly analyze Advantage's databases for production problems.

Lee and Chamberlain have earmarked areas for improvement, such as the user interface and the ability to store more information about the whole product life cycle, from incoming materials inspection to warranty claims.

The Sweet Spot

Datasweep's sweet spot is in assembly lines that use discrete components - things like chips instead of liquids - that are hooked together in a certain sequence. Build-to-order is a key segment, says CEO Vladimir Preysman, because Advantage can provide the benefit of Web-delivered order status. First-quarter sales in this fiscal year are up, reports Datasweep, which declined to provide revenue numbers.

Preysman acknowledges that so far the company's sales have been mostly in "green-field" sites that don't have an existing MES installation and that the most common industry is high-tech equipment. "We replace the paper," he says, referring to a sheet called the "traveler," upon which assembly-line workers write down component numbers and the like.

Datasweep needs to target customers with existing MES setups, Preysman says. That will put it up against competitors such as USData Corp. in Richardson, Texas, says Brant, which are upgrading their products to include features like Web site order-status displays, Datasweep's current competitive advantage.

The Buzz: State of the Market

One Step Ahead

Tom Cook, a senior analyst at Boston-based AMR Research Inc., says Datasweep Advantage has a clearly differentiated value proposition, offering fast implementation, a window to the shop floor via the Web, trends analysis using the bundled databases and remote management. Traditional manufacturing execution systems (MES) aren't as well-endowed with features like near-real-time reporting and Web interfaces, he says.

But that's changing: "Everybody else will have Datasweep's functionality in their sights, and they're going to build it up as quickly as possible," Cook says.

That means Datasweep will have to keep a close eye on established competitors.

One quality that will continue to give Datasweep an edge, says Cook, is that the software was written recently, using the latest Internet technologies, and was built from the ground up to be a Web-enabled application. Its competitors, on the other hand, have software that's decades old in some cases, and they're having to tack on new features.

Camstar Systems Inc.

Campbell, Calif.

www.camstar.com

Cook says Camstar has a large set of clients in the electronics manufacturing industry, which overlaps Datasweep's high-tech customer base. Mesa is the company's older MES system, while InSite is a newer, Windows NT-based, open-architecture application.

USData Corp.

Richardson, Texas

www.usdata.com

Cook says USData's Xfactory takes a tool kit approach that lets users build what's needed for their assembly lines. Its focus on the shop floor has made it light on features such as canned reports, says Cook. The latest release has some capabilities for viewing information over the Web. An add-on called Connector links Xfactory data to a company's back-end business systems.

GenRad Inc.

Westford, Mass.

www.genrad.com

Genrad's Shop Floor Data Manager is often found in PC board assembly shops, says Cook. It integrates with back-end enterprise resource planning systems but hasn't made significant advances with Internet publishing.

Johnson is a Computerworld contributor in Seattle.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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