3-D visualization could be SAP's next unifying layer for applications

3-D promises users a more vivid representation of their entire business as SAP continues investing in APIs and other integration with ERP.

As 3-D visualization begins to play a more substantive role in Business Suite, what should SAP users know about the technology and its likely business benefits?

Companies are increasingly exposing vast amounts of their data to larger communities of users to speed collaboration and focus decision making, but islands of isolated information persist. The complex, three-dimensional (3-D) computer-aided design (CAD) models that firms build at the design and manufacturing stages of production typically remain sequestered on plant floors and in engineering departments. The key to unlocking those models and the wealth of data they contain is 3-D visualization software, a combination of file conversion, authoring, animation and viewing technologies.

While the main thrust of business application development today is designing for mobile devices, there are already signs that ERP vendors consider 3-D a viable paradigm for future design. An example is the work Microsoft and some of its partners are doing to meld Kinect, its motion-tracking and 3-D depth-sensing gaming technology with its Dynamics ERP and customer relationship management (CRM) software. For its part, SAP is working with the 3-D visualization software it gained when it acquired New Zealand-based startup Right Hemisphere in 2011. SAP rebranded the Right Hemisphere software Visual Enterprise (VE).

SAP has over 100 employees working on 3-D visualization, the majority of whom focus on product development and are based in Auckland, New Zealand. The work to date is focused on integration with standard application programming interfaces (APIs) within Business Suite and across a variety of devices, including smartphones and tablets. The aim is to make VE technology accessible from any screen in Business Suite and to provide a powerful mobile experience for VE users. At the same time, SAP continues working on VE integrations to other vendors' applications and aims to foster more third-party VE development by providing robust VE APIs and software development kits. SAP is also integrating VE with SAP Business Objects and HANA to enable 3-D predictive analytics. Expect to hear some announcements on mobile and cloud-based VE offerings at SAP's Sapphire user conference in early June.

SAP has several hundred VE customers, roughly 40% of which are using the 3-D visualization software in their manufacturing operations, while 30% use it for service and support, 20% in engineering, and 10% in newer areas such as marketing.

Typically, the companies turn to 3-D visualization to solve a specific pain point in their business. One VE customer was able to halve its plant-maintenance costs by enabling employees to view the complex processes in a 3-D model and thus more quickly identify and respond to issues involving potential product breakage and downtime. Another VE user eliminated its entire travel and training budget for 900 service representatives by transmitting product-support bulletins containing 3-D models so the reps could self-train by seeing how to fix customer problems.

Firms are also interested in having a single 3-D product model persist across their business, which acts as both a repository of contextual design and manufacturing information as well as the central location for inputting improvements to the model that have been suggested in customer feedback. Organizations are looking for a way to build bridges between their product lifecycle management (PLM) software and their ERP applications.

Specific industries already using VE include aerospace and defense (e.g., Gulfstream) and mining (e.g., Joy Global) as well as oil and gas -- where SAP's partners include Fujitsu -- and utilities and the public sector, where partners include NextSpace. SAP is also in the early stages of a project known as Snap where retailers can incorporate 3-D visualizations into virtual manuals to provide consumers with step-by-step guides to assembling products.

Seeing Business Suite in 3-D

The potential for 3-D visualization within Business Suite is significant, whether in human resources to model and view an entire company's organizational chart or to create a more complete financial picture by combining a firm's historical records with relevant external data. Perhaps the most compelling emerging opportunity is applying 3-D visualization to represent the complexity and interrelationships involved in the Internet of Things.

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It's interesting to draw comparisons between fast-moving HANA and slower-burning VE. SAP's primary focus is moving all its software to a central HANA core as quickly as it can. At the same time, 3-D visualization is also set to become a standard technology layer across SAP as a way of linking business applications (for example, PLM to ERP), improving data navigation and search, and facilitating collaboration.

This evolution of a 3-D layer across Business Suite will happen at a less breakneck speed than the migration to HANA since it is somewhat dependent on external forces -- namely, the ubiquity of affordable 3-D hardware. But that movement is starting to gather steam. Just look at Google Glass and the wide business uses to which Facebook will put its pending purchase of Oculus VR, a startup that makes an immersive virtual reality headset. The time is coming when ERP vendors will each try to outdo their rivals in their commitment to 3-D and virtual reality in the same way that no major ERP announcement today is complete without an iPad demo.

About the author:
China Martens is an independent business applications analyst and freelance writer. Email her at chinamartens@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at @chinamartens.

This was first published in April 2014

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