Microsoft reimagines discrete manufacturing in a connected world

Microsoft’s Sanjay Ravi explains how four big technology shifts are driving business transformation in discrete manufacturing

By Guest on 09 December 2013
Microsoft reimagines discrete manufacturing in a connected world

Imagine a business environment for manufacturers where underlying pressures like globalisation, shifting demographics, a complex regulatory environment, and increasing demands from connected consumers suddenly ease up or go way. That’s just not going to happen.

Now imagine a business world in which a maker of connected, ‘smart TVs’ manages app updates for TVs in homes in dozens of countries worldwide via cloud computing, doing it at a fraction of the cost of running servers internally. Or imagine an automaker with millions of connected cars already on the road, and an emerging ecosystem of third-party app developers aiming to service consumers through these intelligent vehicles.

These examples may sound futuristic, but they’re not. They are real implementations – the first one being Samsung Electronics’ cloud infrastructure for its smart TVs, and the second the progress by Ford Motor Company with its SYNC communications and entertainment system, which topped the five million vehicle milestone in late 2012.

They are prime examples of how manufacturers in sectors such as automotive and electronics are tapping the power of today’s four big technology shifts: mobility; social networking; cloud computing; and big data.

Manufacturing enterprises can’t change underlying market forces, but they can look for ways in which to profit from these shifts. The essential lesson is not the importance of these shifts, or even that these shifts are highly interconnected, but rather, that the solutions to exploit these shifts exists today.

Mobility as differentiator

When most people think of the changes wrought by mobility, they think of smartphones, tablets and mobile apps. Indeed these technologies have changed the expectations of consumers. But mobile apps and connectivity are widely used and proven in the business world too, with manufacturing industry specific, enterprise grade apps built on the Windows 8 platform now available. These apps function on tablets, PCs or Windows 8 smartphones, allowing users to decide on the form factor the best suits their environment without additional development work to realise the cross-device benefits.

Apps, tablets and smartphones aren’t the whole story here. As is often the case with the four technology shifts, they work in combination. Mobile solutions leverage a cloud-based infrastructure, or a cloud-based infrastructure supports big data analysis. In the case of mobility, it’s also important to consider the range of connected vehicles and smart equipment that isn’t wired to one location.

Social expands reach

The rise of social networking sites have transformed the way people communicate, share content and stay in touch. Now companies are beginning to apply social networking for business ends. At Microsoft, we call the mix of social networking and business technology ‘social business’. While it can involve a public social network, it might instead focus on a private or internal social business network aimed at goals such as product ideation. By integrating with line of business systems, a social business initiative also builds a bridge from existing ‘systems of record’ to help achieve ‘systems of engagement’. These systems are seen as vital to reaching out to consumers and using unstructured content in a useful context to drive better business decisions.

Cloud’s pervasive power

IT leaders are increasingly turning to cloud solutions to cut operational costs, while also helping specific line of business functions innovate. While the cloud can handle various types of information management tasks, it’s well suited for emerging initiatives around the connected vehicle, where the manufacturer doesn’t have to ramp up its own internal IT systems, but can take advantage of the global resources via the cloud, to scale their connected vehicle initiatives globally. It can also gain the agility required to drive fast-paced consumer-focused innovation so it can scale its connected car programme quickly. Infotainment features and emerging online services also are a way for manufacturers to set their products apart in an era in which consumers increasingly expect intelligent and personalised connected experiences. Looking forward, innovation will be about imbuing new products with a richer experience for consumers, knowing that cloud computing can provide instant scalability and attractive economics.

Big data momentum

While business intelligence (BI) has been important to manufacturers for decades, the explosion in connected devices and apps is generating an exponential growth in data and the need to gain better insight from this. Thus the big data trend involves the evolution of BI and data warehouse tools, but also the extraordinary compute power made possible by cloud computing, as well as the emergence of Hadoop, an open-source software architecture for distributed computation on large data sets, combined with advanced real-time predictive analytics capabilities, that can be delivered in a very consumable and intuitive way to end users.

The findings from Microsoft’s big data survey points to the need for solutions that can extract insight from vast amounts of data. More than half currently store at least 100 TB of data, and a third expect the amount of data they store to double in the next two to three years.

In manufacturing there are also other domains, such as marketing or product ideation, that deal with vast amounts of unstructured data. Being able to extract insight or patterns from unstructured data will be part of the challenge involved in evolving IT from 'systems of record' to 'systems of engagement'.

Bringing it all together

The end result of these transformative technologies is that they bring much more information into play. Even with BI and big data solutions, people within a manufacturing enterprise still need a platform to collaborate, view roles-based dashboards and alerts, and take part in workflows.

At Microsoft, we see the need for a modern productivity platform to harness the information flow from the four major technology shifts. This is more than a superficial user interface, it merges Office productivity apps with line of business systems. This platform supports the evolution from the traditional IT systems that supported ‘systems of record’ to meeting the needs of the modern enterprise – the ‘systems of engagement’. The Discrete Industry Reference Architecture framework, launched by Microsoft along with its partners, provides guidance to manufacturers to take advantage of these emerging capabilities to drive business results.

The evolution toward systems of engagement is critical to empowering people in the way they work by supporting both traditional structured and unstructured processes. Here are some are some of the characteristics we are seeing as part of the move towards systems of engagement and a modern productivity platform:

  • It merges Office productivity apps that users are accustomed to with information and processes from line of business applications
  • It’s cloud-based, so it can be accessed from everywhere, scale instantly, and is affordable
  • Access is not confined to one device type. The same platform will work for a user whether they log on with a smart phone, tablet, PC, laptop, or even a plant-floor kiosk
  • Industry software partners will be able to write apps for the platform, imbuing it with line of business functionality in areas like production monitoring, field services and sales
  • The platform supports both structured and unstructured workflows and makes systems of engagement a reality. This sort of modern desktop is not a sketch for the future, but available to be implemented today.

By embracing the four major technology shifts with proven technology, manufacturers can find ways to transform and more effectively innovate, perform, and grow as leaders in a market where mobile, social, cloud and big data aren’t just buzzwords, but an integral part of driving business success and reimagining the manufacturing enterprise.

Sanjay Ravi is Microsoft’s worldwide managing director of discrete manufacturing. This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of Prime

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