Thinking Outside The Box | Breakthrough Magazine
Updated: Oct 24, 2018
Everyone likes to think they know their business inside out, but just how strong a grasp do you have on every single aspect of your operation? Could you tell us about the full life-cycle of a product, or the productivity of your overseas factory? And what impact does the one have upon the other?
With the BOXARR software platform, businesses can take in a complete overview of their organisation at a glance and bring their human expertise and disparate data sources together in a comprehensible and meaningful way. We sat down with Fraser Hamilton, Vice President of Global Alliances, to unpack the concept
The original concept for BOXARR came from an R&D engagement with a global aerospace OEM. At the time the OEM was trying to understand how to deal with very complex challenges within its organisation, and to see the connectivity between the design of its products and the manufacturing and maintenance processes. The founders of what would become BOXARR – who include two process excellence engineers and an AI expert – had their epiphany when they stepped back from the customer and really thought about the crux of the underlying problem.
While most efficient businesses will have all their financial, logistical and operational information logged somewhere, it’s likely to be recorded on a plethora of disparate spreadsheets or information systems. That’s not an issue when someone just wants to know a specific fact, or analyse a very particular problem; but what if you want to see how your entire business comes together as a living entity? Or understand how one facet of your operations affects a very different process or department, across a number of different contexts?
Clearly, the argument for drawing all this data together in one place is compelling, but the R&D team faced a major hurdle.
“The problem is, how do you visualise and analyse a highly complex and inter-dependent ‘system of systems’, and at a scale which reflects the true breadth and depth of the challenge at hand?” Fraser said. “There were no tools that would effectively help human beings navigate these sorts of vast, real-world problems. What we discovered was that you had to make any solution human-centric, which meant that the representation of the challenge you are trying to deal with has to be comprehensible by a person, not just a machine. The visualisation and representation of information is vital to helping humans solve problems.
“Existing business tools, such as spreadsheets, play around the edges of the problem but only really work in their own particular parameters. There are also process and engineering modelling tools that are fit for purpose in their defined scope, but are difficult or impossible to scale up to represent holistic organisational problems. Likewise, ERP systems and databases are great repositories of data, but don’t account for inter-dependency. So we needed to solve the challenge of how to map a complex ‘system of systems’, enable it to scale it up to potentially massive size, and combine human-readable visualisation with powerful computational ability. The democratisation of knowledge is vital for a business to thrive. We think that everybody, from the CEO to the guy sweeping the floor, should be able to stand in front of a BOXARR model and have an intelligent conversation about what they’re looking at.
To reach their solution, BOXARR concentrated on the human element and thought about how the average person visualises a problem. The result is a digital platform that represents information as a series of ‘boxes’ and ‘arrows’ – hence the company name, BOXARR.
“If you sit someone down with a pen and paper and say ‘draw me how to make a cup of coffee without using any words’, it’s pretty likely they will draw some sort of flow diagram with boxes and arrows,” Fraser said. “It’s the instinctive, backof-the-napkin way of representing a problem. So that’s the fundamental core of our paradigm.”
In a nutshell, BOXARR allows people to collaboratively model collections of ‘objects’ in the form of boxes – where different types of boxes could represent things such as parts, people, processes, contracts, milestones… anything. Each box can be associated with an unlimited amount of data or attributes. In the case of a part, the data could be its SKU, weight, dimensions etc and hyperlinks to other information resources such as manuals, or to open other applications such as CAD drawing tools. You can then draw arrows to form relationships between the boxes. Again, these relationships can be defined in any way you please and associated with any number of data attributes. With the ability to create cyclical relationships, and hierarchical sub-systems in multiple contexts, it’s possible to build a complete and holistic overview of every single aspect of your business and operations, right down to the lifecycle of a screw.
For the average business, this ‘map’ would be far too vast to display at once, so BOXARR expands, collapses or filters the model to create as concise or as detailed a view as you need at any given time. The platform also allows you to navigate and view the model and data across different contexts, enabling you to see how any aspect of your business or process interacts with others in a variety of ways; for example – by work breakdown structure, or by department, location, programme phase, supply-chain tier etc. BOXARR will also enable the model data to be displayed as data and pivot tables, swim-lanes, DSM matrices, GANTT schedules, map-overlays and interactive dashboards.
“BOXARR is supporting OEM production models which incorporate hundreds of thousands of objects with millions of data attributes being computed,” Fraser said. “So the ability to focus things down to a human-readable scale is absolutely key to dealing with real-world problems while still being able to account for the inter-dependencies across every factor. Different people within an organisation will also want to look at the same model system from different perspectives, perhaps motivated by the role they play or because they’re trying to juxtapose information in a multi-contextual way.
“For example, in a supply-chain situation, I might want to filter down to a selected aspect of my product’s componentry, then by switching between Contexts I can instantly see who makes it, across which factories, across which locations, across which tiers of my supply-chain, and in which programme phase. What’s great about BOXARR is that you can start answering complex questions and test alternatives really quickly through visualisation.”
With this visual mapping capability, BOXARR also allows you to create and apply powerful functional analyses. So you can filter upstream or downstream from any object, determine critical paths, compute data or produce ‘heat maps’ of possible risks. The platform can even be used to predict the propagated impacts of an event or decision across the entire business.
“We enable an organisation to collaboratively stitch together what were previously disparate aspects of their information systems and activities,” Fraser said. “For example, a manufacturer can stitch their supply chain into their product design, then into their manufacturing, then into their distribution, and so on. So you can encompass the entire lifecycle of your product in a model. One of the buzz words in this area is ‘digital thread’, but many solution providers require customers to write pretty hefty cheques and invest heavily in proprietary technology. It can often be a ‘rip and replace’ approach where everything has to work inside their system. This is costly, disruptive, takes years to deploy, and comes with a bucket load of risk.
“We see BOXARR as more of a digital tapestry. It’s like a blanket that you throw over the top of your existing information systems, so you can draw out the information you need, then visualise and analyse it and reveal it within our interconnected platform. “This means BOXARR is very fast and cost-effective to adopt, delivers value from any scale of implementation, and leverages the investment our customers have already made in their information systems. And because it’s all about boxes and arrows it’s easy to learn and it’s easy to use.
”BOXARR’s client base already boasts some pretty impressive names in aerospace and defence including: Airbus, Boeing, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, Safran, the MoD in the UK and the Departments of Defence in both the US and Australia. The company is moving rapidly into other domains such as automotive. Based on a token system, BOXARR is a subscription platform that companies of any size can access to the level of their current business need. The BOXARR platform can be deployed in the Cloud or on premise, and pricing starts from a few hundred pounds per year per user.
“Nowadays it’s fundamental for any business to be aware of data innovation and to be on top of their own data,” Fraser said. “We can’t ignore that we’re already in a digital world. The problem is that the volume of data is burgeoning, let alone having confidence in the data you already have – this is a big challenge that won’t go away. No matter what the size of your company, everyone is suffering from the same problems. Our argument is that the inter-dependency between all aspects of your operations and your information is where massive risks to your business lie. We all need to accept that everything we do is inter-dependent, and you can’t understand or optimise it just by looking at numbers.”
Breakthrough Magazine | Innovation in Engineering and Manufacturing | Issue 5