This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of The Record.
In this digital age, when it comes to remaining relevant and progressive, innovation is a key enabler. By analysing information and gaining a better view of how a product is used in the field, manufacturers can make calculated changes to ensure their product doesn’t become redundant.
“When we start thinking about a way for a company to succeed, you need to go back to the basics,” explains Enrique Andaluz, worldwide industry director of strategic business development at Microsoft. “A key element is the ability to connect with the customer. Companies are trying to outperform their competitors by creating a new operating model based on the way they interact with their customer.”
Andaluz says that historically, business processes have been limited by the technology that manufacturing practitioners have had at their disposal. This has resulted in companies basing their production and innovation squarely around meeting the perceived needs of customers. Although it is customer-centric, the data and information still travels in a mostly linear fashion – back and forward – and has inherent delays.
But in today’s digital world, there is an opportunity to reimagine and rework how companies operate, what their end goals are, and ultimately deliver a more rounded offering in a faster way.
“Data is now opening up a new world for companies,” Andaluz says. “Today’s manufacturers are finding that data is presenting a new opportunity, and that they have the chance to do a lot more than they could before.”
As products can now be more easily connected in an inexpensive way, companies’ understanding of how products perform in the field and how they are being used is changing. This directly feeds innovation.
“Say my product has 50 features, but when monitoring from remote locations, data analytics tells me that only 25 features are being used regularly, and that the product could benefit from features that haven’t been included in the first place. This gives me insight into what my new product should be doing,” Andaluz says. “I can identify how I should be innovating, where to focus and where my investment needs to go.”
The growth of data is resulting in fewer constraints, and companies can start to create new operational models. By taking a data-fueled approach, innovation can be driven in faster, more informed and more effective ways. This is ultimately how a culture of innovation is created.
Andaluz says: “Manufacturers can start to innovate in the way they operate their plants, in the way they sell and connect with customers, and they can innovate not only on new products or services, but more importantly around how they engineer or reengineer the entire product value chain.”
According to Andaluz, creating a culture of innovation is about thinking freely, intimately understanding the needs of customers, and then being able to use technology and digital capabilities as the catalyst to meet desired goals at an accelerated pace.
“On the technological side, understanding the mass of data that is out there is vital,” he says. “Data is coming at a much bigger scale, at a faster speed and greater variety. Companies must be able to suitably interpret this information.”
Andaluz believes having a data analyst or data scientist is hugely important when it comes to fueling innovation.
“They help turn data into business functions and innovation,” he says. “Only when a company has all these elements in place can a culture of innovation be cultivated. People start thinking freely without any technology constraints, and imagining what they couldn’t do before.”
Having the right tools to make this vision a reality is vital too. Data analytics is critical, Andaluz says, as this creates the intelligence needed to progress and innovate. Tools that have machine learning and cognitive capabilities that enable collaboration are equally important to the process.
“Companies must think about tools that can interoperate,” Andaluz says. “They need to think about how a digital platform can interoperate with a cloud platform, which can interoperate with a security platform and with the user. That’s where you begin thinking about user interfaces, which blend the physical and digital life, and enable interoperability. This brings a new level of productivity to the systems, to ‘things’ like robots or equipment, as well as operations and users.”
Underpinned by the Microsoft Azure cloud platform, Microsoft has the tools and engines that enable this connectivity and have the capabilities and algorithms to perform advanced analytics. These engines can also understand and process structured and non-structured data, thus enabling predictive analytics that in turn help ‘things’ to think hand-in-hand with users when resolving manufacturing issues.
“We see these technologies giving birth to new tools for manufacturers which manifest in things like a new class of digital twin,” says Andaluz. “This new breed differs from its predecessors in that with today’s technologies you can replicate the ‘things’, its cognitive capabilities, and the entire contextual information that lives with it. There comes a point where intelligent equipment behaves like humans and the equipment is capable of interacting with humans without geographical, time or business boundaries, because the entire context is thoroughly represented in mixed-reality environments.”
Andaluz says this enables enterprises to truly integrate vertically, horizontally and with customers via immersive mixed-reality environments.
“In these environments, you can collaborate and improve operational performance while the equipment is in operation,” he says. “This new class of digital twin fits the design principles of Industry 4.0. If you are morphing your business based on the fourth industrial revolution principles – which every leading manufacturer is doing today – you must use tools and technology that fits this need.”
Companies are now better placed to learn about the past, understand the present, and start to predict the future.
“Our connected services – from Azure IoT Suite to Cortana Intelligent Suite with cognitive services and Bot Framework, among others – bring together all the capabilities that manufacturers need to enable true business intelligence. With that intelligence, innovation can truly take off.”