IT excellence delivers across industry sectors

NorthTec, Viscount Plastics, Airways and VectorNet finalists in the Overall Excellence in the use of ICT category

A framework that helps far-flung students learn by combining various communications technologies is one of the finalists in the Overall Excellence in the use of ICT category of the 2008 Computerworld Excellence Awards.

The second finalist has devised a better production scheduling system for manufacturing. While the two remaining finalists are the possum-control VectorNet tool, from the Animal Health Board — which is also a finalist in the SME and Innovative Use of ICT categories — and Airways New Zealand’s Collaborative Airways Arrivals Manager online flight-prioritisation system, which is also a finalist in the Customer Service category.

Go north and learn

The NorthTec Learning Gateway (NLG) is a framework developed by NorthTec, the major tertiary provider serving Northland.

CIO Xiaohui Xu says the framework helps deliver education to Northland students by using the tools people already have, such as email, internet access, and audio and video-conferencing.

Northland is such a vast area, he says. This meant NorthTec had to develop a convenient means of educating students who can’t always get to its Whangarei campus.

So, over the past three years, Xu has worked on integrating various technologies, so as to ease communication between staff and students across the region.

“This function has been used in virtual-classroom teaching, online tutoring, and student virtual-group discussion,” he says.

Called “Access”, the integrated framework enables students to access information anywhere, any time, via any communications media, be that LAN, WAN, wireless, mobile network or the internet, says Xu.

This flexible arrangement, which also caters to different styles of learning, has improved both student retention and graduation rates, says Xu. Technologies used include SharePoint Portal Server 2003, Microsoft Exchange 2007 and Office Communication Server 2008, Moodle and IP telephony integration.

The improved communication capability has also led to the development of new ways of learning, such as online group discussions and interactive tutoring from lecturers.

Students and staff can communicate with each other via email, video or audio conferencing, or using instant messaging. The system provides a more cost-effective way of conducting learning when remotely located students need to be reached. It also enhances the learning experience and provides better-quality teaching, says Xu.

NorthTec CEO Terry Barnett says NorthTec has 10 learning centres and 60 community teaching locations. Students can either study at home or at these centres, he says.

“Students now have the flexibility to study from anywhere at any time.”

“The NLG represents a radical improvement in access, affordability and quality of education.”

The teaching staff also have more tools with which to monitor student engagement and understanding, allowing for timely intervention when needed. There are also real-time and online courses.

“Direct access to teaching and administration staff by students, through, for example, presence management and instant messaging, makes staff and students more accountable,” Barnett explains.

“In the past, distance learning methods were focused on online learning, which saw learners download learning materials from websites and study at their own pace. NLG introduces new processes which have the potential to change both traditional classroom teaching and online learning.”

Decisive Plastics

Viscount Plastics has devised a production scheduling system, called AspectPL, as part of its manufacturing resource planning (MRP) system.

Operations manager David Ralph says the system collects data from various processes and helps the firm judge how to run the plant more efficiently.

Previously, such planning involved paper-based systems, but now the automated process brings decision-making down to the shop-floor level.

Viscount Plastics first installed the system three years ago, in Auckland, but has now extended it to its other plants.

It has helped with efficiency, as well as with better communications and planning, says Ralph, who reports a productivity improvement of 20%.

AspectPL was developed by Production Logistics NZ Ltd and has now been enhanced for use in areas other than plastic-moulding manufacturing.

Managing director Alan Orr says AspectPL integrates between top-level management systems and the plant floor, providing visibility of all processes within the business.

This helps optimise processes in real-time, rather than retrospectively. Viscount had identified world-class production methods and AspectPL is helping the company put these in place, says Orr.

The technical challenge involved developing the software and integrating it with the company’s ERP system. It was developed in .Net, Microsoft SQL Server and C#.

Orr says the innovation was in the system that measures various KPIs. Vanguard Plastics has now extended the system’s use from Auckland to its plants across Australasia, and to China. Production Logistics now plans to further develop the AspectPL system so it can work on “any device”.

Fly whatever the weather

Airways New Zealand developed the online Collaborative Arrivals Manager system to help it better determine which flights should take off and land when the weather is bad and the number of available flight slots restricted.

It used to employ a “flow controller” to help airlines prioritise flights at such times, but the constant ringing-around this involved was time-consuming. Now, the new online system allows airlines to bypass the flight controller and manipulate landing slots themselves, using drag-and-drop functions on a website. The system helps airlines pick their most important flights, such as those with international connections. It also means that delays now happen on the ground, not in the air, thus saving fuel.

Possum control

VectorNet from the Animal Health Board is a tool for designing, planning, contracting and managing TB possum-control programmes.

The GIS-based system helps calculate the best places for possum-control operations and how best they might be performed. It also reports on other operations as a means of helping develop “best practice”.

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