It is a fact that in today’s highly competitive environment, small and medium size businesses (SMEs) are having trouble competing with large companies, who often operate on a global scale, given that they may more easily survive in competitive environment since they have the ability to offer a wide selection of products, referring also to multiple markets and enjoying scale advantages in purchasing, manufacturing, distributing, selling and marketing.
This barrier is even more persistent in the toy industry, which is already suffering from the increasing competition of other sources of entertainment, such as the Internet, TV, handheld consoles and devices running entertainment apps. These alternatives cause the playing time and consequently the number of end-users for the toys to shorten significantly.
As a result, SMEs in the toy industry should move away from the traditional way of doing business towards more innovative processes and tools. In other words, SMEs need to invest, least they become obsolete. However, R&D expenditures in the sector do not seem to respond to this need of evolution due.
Nowadays, enterprises increasingly achieve a competitive advantage by forming innovative networks of value creation and bundling core competencies from different partners. Although the research community sees networked organisations as an undisputable reality, companies find it very time-consuming and difficult to establish electronic business relationships with a larger number of business partners. Α number of challenges that are even more persistent for SMEs, such as the lack of trust between partners and the lack of IT capabilities that make it difficult to integrate internal processes in a potentially cross-country business network, are making companies hesitant in pursuing the formation of collaborative networks. Specifically, in what concerns especially SMEs in the toy industry, strict toy safety regulations, governed by the Toy Safety Directive, lead toy manufacturers into isolation, to better control the conformity of their processes, materials, designs, etc. with EU toy safety standards.
Following that reasoning, the ToyLabs project is based on the pillars of co-creation and open innovation in its effort to defragment the EU toy industry and make SMEs more competitive. During the initial phases of the project, it was identified that there is a lack of cooperation among the various stakeholders in the value chain from the conception of a new product, all the way to its commercialisation. The research has shown that in fragmented markets, collaborative approaches may yield better results than most stakeholders expect. In other words, the project suggests that SMEs in the toy industry can survive and become competitive again by taking advantage of current ICT advancements and forming collaborations with other stakeholders of the toy industry to create shared value. However, in the toy industry and the manufacturing sector in general this is more easily said than done.
In fact, the initial thoughts of the consortium were that this could be achieved via a Partner Matching module inside the ToyLabs platform that would automate the task of searching and selecting potential partners, active in the toy industry. Even though this task feels like connecting the dots in the sense that a manufactures searches for fitting partners to design and produce a new product, the fact that these partners operate in different business domains and are governed by their own processes and vocabularies brought to our attention one very important barrier; enterprises and organisations cannot cooperate if they cannot understand each other. As such, Business Process Interoperability (BPI) came to our attention.
Granted, the original idea of developing a Partner Matching module remained, as it is the one that ended up being implemented in the final solution. What was obvious though, was that some tweaking was necessary to realise its full potential.
What does companies understanding each other really mean though? And what is the role of BPI in surpassing this barrier?
To answer these questions, let’s start from the beginning. One of the initial tasks performed in the context of the ToyLabs project was to identify every possible stakeholder of the toy industry from manufacturers to safety experts and distributors. In doing so, we realized that most stakeholders in the toy industry may have dissimilar roles, processes, expertise and vocabularies. That means that there is a lack of homogeneity in the sector’s data that makes it difficult to create a collaboration system without deep knowledge of the domain, its stakeholders, and the challenges they face. The answer to this problem was to promote BPI through the ToyLabs platform, by developing a tool that performs partner matching among the stakeholders of the industry to help them develop collaborative relations and allows cross sector information translation and exchange to make data exchange possible. This information exchange includes requirements, designs, manufacturing specifications (i.e. materials, resolution, strength, production capacity, etc.), manufacturing orders and others. This kind of cross-sectorial business process interoperability drives the need for the standardisation of both the search and pre-selection of potential partners, as well as the interaction between collaborators after a partnership has been established. This can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure1: ToyLabs platform as an enabler for BPI
Partner matching is among the core elements that drive business interoperability in Business-to-Business transaction systems as it relies on structures, and infrastructures which in most of the cases are of heterogeneous nature and therefore constitute a bottleneck of rapid production execution. In ToyLabs, the selection of the partner concerns the manufacturer who filters results according to his criteria and the expertise he is looking for. For example if he is looking for a prototype manufacturer he will be searching for a FabLab that has the necessary expertise and capabilities to prototype the product according to the manufacturer’s criteria. That means that the product’s technical characteristics must be translated into the equipment and expertise of a FabLab and this procedure must be automatic and holistic for the Toy Industry, as well as cover different languages and geographical sectors of the EU. This makes the need for standardization of information of paramount importance.
In the end, what was decided was to develop a holistic blueprint model that will encompass all relevant information about not only the various stakeholders of the toy industry but also the different parameters and attributes of the different toys. To come up with a Blueprint Model for the Toy Industry and the needs of the Toy-Labs collaboration platform, that will be as exhaustive as possible to capture all the partnering or toy creation requirements, multiple, iterative discussions with the project’s pilot partners - both FabLabs and Toy Manufacturers- as well as a survey where 43 toy industry representatives participated, were conducted. A set of key recommendations were thus generated and were used both as requirements for developing the structure and contents of the ToyLabs blueprints as well as for rendering the generated blueprints as analytical as possible.
The ToyLabs Blueprint Model is therefore a declarative meta-model that aggregates and modularises partner, toy and technical capabilities’ data and information, by specifying two types of interrelated blueprints:
- The Partner Artefact Blueprint capturing partners’ unique skills and capabilities and making them available to potential contractors and
- The Toy Artefact Blueprint that sets the constraints and preconditions up with respect to the creation of a toy that a partner should respond to.
An overview of the Partner & Toy Artefact blueprint can be seen in the table below:
Even though, the above blueprint seems exhaustive, it is noteworthy that some of the attributes can be analysed even further. For example, in technical competencies, 3D printing can be further analysed to include the different models and software for 3D printing. In certifications awarded, the certifications can be also further analysed to include the different quality and safety standards set by the EU.
In the end, the partner matching methodology has shifted from the solely technical standpoint it was, towards one that, in part, handles the search for a new collaborator as a visit to an aggregated marketplace of competences and reputations. Of course, it is the ability to retrieve and process data from different stakeholders that are potential partners, namely business interoperability that may automate and further enhance the partner matching and selection procedure and the ToyLabs Blueprint Model constitutes a key step towards this direction.