A Cooperative Framework to Support Concurrent Engineering
Corresponding Author: Schmidt, Karin
Author(s): Schmidt, K., Wagner, J., and Bumiller, J.
Organisation(s): DaimlerChrysler (Germany)
Introduction 

Due to the rapid change in technology and intense competition in market, the key factors in successful product development are (1) reducing time to market, (2) reducing cost, while (3) improving at the same time product quality. This requires a team of experts with various backgrounds and located in different places. Product development today is therefore a result of integrating distributive collaborative teams in a virtual enterprise. But this form of concurrent engineering increases heavily the amount and the need for communication and coordination between the participants. Also heterogeneity in various aspects (operating systems, networks, window systems among several others) is a fact that must be dealt with. 

This paper reports on the development of a web-based collaborative product development framework, called MUVER. The framework has the following requirements: 
* Support for private and shared workspaces.
* Support for multiple tools in shared workspaces.
* Seamless integration of existing (application-specific and CSCW) tools.
* Possibility to add data and objects dynamically to shared workspaces.
* Access to the collaboration environment over the Web from multiple platforms.
* Support of distributed teams including awareness of participants.
* Support of asynchronous and synchronous communication and coordination.

The MUVER framework 

MUVER is a framework to support projects in the product development process. Each project consists of several tasks. Each of the tasks corresponds to an interactive environment (called Virtual Laboratory, or in short V-Lab) to which a special team of product developers is assigned to. The set of all V-Labs forms the virtual project house. Teams, V-Labs, and tasks can be dynamically generated during the product development process. A V-Lab provides a shared workspace in which the team members are aware of each other while working on shared objects (e.g. files, data, models, etc). Each V-Lab also provides a specialised tool environment that is best suited to fulfil the corresponding task. The tool environment comprises CAD and CSCW tools where the later enable participants inside their team or between different teams to collaborate either in real-time or asynchronously. Team members are also allowed to customise their shared workspace with tools to suit their needs. 

Thus, MUVER is based on the metaphor of a task-specific place whereby places are long-lived, their content is persistent, and they provide a room for team members to communicate and cooperate and can contain both general and special purpose tools. 

The implementation of the MUVER framework consists of three major components. Two of them, (1) the Interface Component, and (2) the Service Facility are described in more detail in this paper. We use the term facility according to OMG terminology because the service facility corresponds to a vertical CORBA facility. 

The MUVER Interface Component is a multi-user environment and serves as entrance point for the distributed product developers into MUVER. It graphically represents the virtual project house with all its V-Labs, corresponding tasks, and teams. Each V-Lab is represented as a 2-dimensional room, containing special icons of active team members for reasons of awareness. Each team member can change his position by moving his icon into other V-Labs. The room boundary serves hereby as a means for access control and can only be passed after authentication. A tool panel offers a number of tools to the team. In short, the interface component is responsible for the visual presentation and handling of the distributed teams, it supports a common shared workspace and information environment, and arranges the virtual rooms (V-Labs). 

The MUVER Service Facility comprises the following three main entities: 
* The communication subsystem: It handles the communication between the service facility and team members (clients, represented by their interface components), and the communication between clients. The communication is performed using CORBA Orbs and asynchronous event channels. Several event channels are set up, which are dedicated to special types of events. 
* The client subsystem: It administrates and manages the teams and team members, their movements within the virtual project house, their access rights to V-Labs and resources, the development of transient teams, and the shared workspaces.
* The tool administration: All tools used in product development are administrated within the Service Facility. The set contains commercial cooperative tools, commercial non-cooperative tools, and proprietary cooperative tools. Tool administration comprises e.g. their addition and removal, their association with V-Labs, their locating, their starting and stopping.

Conclusion 

This paper introduces into the concept of a framework for distributed product development. It enables platform independent integration of engineering and CSCW tools. It provides a common working and information environment, and establishes virtual, task-specific labs. MUVER fills the role of a virtual project house for teams whose members can work both co-located and at a distance. Because of its component-based realisation it behaves extendable and generic. 

To overcome the problem of heterogeneity MUVER supports internet-based collaboration and is implemented in JAVA size=2. Several tools to be used are available as (platform-independent) JAVA applets. All communication between clients (interface components) and server (service facility) is performed using CORBA orbs. The use of CORBA also guarantees location and access transparency.