This article was originally published in the Summer 2018 issue of The Record.
Products of all kinds have become increasingly complex in the digital age, as a rapid succession of digital technologies has enabled ever faster, more agile and intelligent product design. At the same time, mobile devices have put a world of social connections, work tools and leisure activities in the palms of people’s hands. This combination of influences is driving consumer expectations for new products that deliver an up-to-the-minute, personalised experience – and manufacturers are under pressure to find faster, more efficient ways to produce high quality products and respond to market trends.
“The manufacturing industry is shifting its focus from building products as standalone offerings to providing services that enhance existing products,” says Bill Moffett, senior global industry product marketing manager, manufacturing at Microsoft. “In doing so manufacturers are not only providing a product but nurturing a relationship that is built on feedback and trust. This has become increasingly important as the expectation for mass customisation has become the norm. Manufacturers need the flexibility to create customised products for a segment of one if they are to succeed.”
Success depends on manufacturers’ ability to reach out to the marketplace and connect with key partners across intelligence, product development, operations and services. “Creating a successful product demands in-depth customer knowledge and seamless communication with engineers, suppliers and other partners,” says Moffett. “Obtaining and then understanding feedback is critical whether it’s with vendors, customers or even within your own organisation. The insight gained from that feedback provides significant gains across the supply chain and internal manufacturing operations. Whether it’s improved and expedited delivery modes, changes in packaging or various forms of product innovation, timely and quality feedback is the core to the overall ability of a manufacturer to not only provide what the market wants, but also to anticipate market changes. From product innovation to packaging changes, timely, quality feedback is core to the overall ability of a manufacturer to provide what the market wants – and to anticipate market changes.”
To achieve that level of flexibility, manufacturers are embracing ways to enable everyone involved in the product lifecycle to share the same, up-to-date information across innovation, design, production and end use of the product. Increasingly, they are leveraging the internet of things (IoT) to enable rapid, intelligent and data-rich processes throughout the product lifecycle. “IoT is not only enabling up-to-the minute insights,” says Moffett. “Combined with capabilities like machine learning, advanced analytics and 3D printing it is giving manufacturers the flexibility to respond rapidly, enabling new mass customisation business models that weren’t possible in the past. By harnessing these capabilities and integrating IoT with computer-aided design, manufacturing and engineering systems, manufacturers can transform their processes, anticipate market trends and deliver successful products to market in record time.”
As experience becomes the key differentiator, manufacturers are looking for ways to surround their traditional products with value-adding services and solutions. Moffett says this ‘servitisation’ has emerged as one of IoT’s most exciting impacts. “To overcome the challenges presented by commoditisation and deliver on today’s shifting customer demands, manufacturers must create new customer-centric business strategies,” he says. “The convergence of physical and digital systems enables new business models, such as product-as-a-service, that offer new avenues for differentiation and customer satisfaction. Analysts highlight investments in servitisation as a key strategy to differentiate and increase market share.”
Field service and predictive maintenance are two key points of differentiation in this environment, for domestic appliances and on an industrial scale. “IoT, together with machine learning, gives manufacturers visibility into performance by connecting and remotely monitoring devices,” explains Moffett. “Manufacturers can minimise downtime by creating alerts and automated workflows that enable predictive maintenance, automatically notifying maintenance staff when issues occur – and before they become full-blown problems.”
The benefits are three-fold. “When maintenance is needed, manufacturers can minimise costs by optimising schedules to dispatch the right technician and ensure a first-time fix by equipping technicians with information, mixed reality tools and remote guidance targeted at the job in hand,” says Moffett. “In addition, with sales integration, technicians can capitalise on upsell and cross-sell opportunities on-site to ensure customers achieve their desired results. Ultimately, manufacturers can transform their products and services by gleaning insights from repair, performance and utilisation data.”
Cloud-powered technologies like real-time data capture, advanced analytics and 3D modelling and prototyping are enabling manufacturers to maximise the value of these insights and others from multiple internal and external sources. With a wealth of up-to-date information across the organisation and its partners, everyone involved has the tools they need to innovate, assess and refine products at a rapid pace, making better decisions and creating competitive advantage.
In this arena of data-driven creativity, Microsoft and its partners are helping manufacturers to reap the benefits of IoT throughout the product lifecycle. “Technologies like mixed reality, AI, machine learning and IoT are integral components of an intelligent manufacturing future,” says Moffett. “Each manufacturer has unique needs, and as the competitive arena continues to evolve they need the agility to respond quickly to opportunities and create new business models. Microsoft’s network of partners has the deep industry expertise to leverage these technologies to deliver specific business outcomes, with solutions that combine the best thinking from manufacturing experts and Microsoft software engineers.”
As the industry looks ahead, Moffett concludes, these new technologies are set to transform the competitive landscape. “Product lifecycle has become cyclical, as consumers’ changing expectations and demands for product-as-a-service look beyond the product itself,” he says. “Enabled by cloud and IoT technologies, manufacturers can extend services and reap insights that build value for their customers and for the business, informing the next generation of products and connecting with marketing intelligence to anticipate new trends. As the manufacturing landscape transforms, the wealth of data and insight enabled by these technologies is empowering manufacturers to target their efforts in a much more accurate, collaborative and efficient way – ultimately differentiating themselves from their competitors.”