Manufacturing on the edge with Microsoft

Manufacturing on the edge with Microsoft
Colin Masson discusses how manufacturers can use new tech to create competitive advantages

Elly Yates-Roberts |

This article was originally published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issue delivered directly to your inbox.

For centuries, manufacturing has harnessed advancing technology to drive transformation in industry and society. But as technologies like the internet of things (IoT), automation and artificial intelligence (AI) continue to develop at a rapid pace, manufacturers need to identify exactly where today’s investment will deliver real competitive advantage. 

With its finger on the manufacturing pulse, Microsoft has identified six key trends that will contribute to competitive advantage for manufacturers over the coming year – and provided an in-depth view of them in its 2019 Manufacturing Trends Report. “These trends will define intelligent manufacturing, as well as help empower clients to better evaluate and manage operations, build innovative products and services, and grow their manufacturing businesses,” says Colin Masson, industry marketing director for Manufacturing at Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise.

As customers demand ever faster responses to their changing requirements, the convergence of IT with operational technologies (OT) is a powerful emerging trend. “Businesses face increasing pressure to meet changing customer demands, including faster fulfilment and greater transparency,” says Masson. “To do this, manufacturers need to integrate their systems, including IT and OT systems, as well as integrating new and legacy systems to create smarter, connected solutions. Technological advances in cloud-computing, remote sensors and connectivity are now making it faster and easier for manufacturers to achieve this integration, opening the door for a new breed of intelligent manufacturing technology.”

Customer experience has become central to competitive advantage for any business, and manufacturers are at the forefront of creating new business models to move closer to the consumer and meet evolving customer demands. “We’re seeing tremendous growth in Anything-as-a-Service (XaaS), as consumers embrace new business models that offer them the latest products with greater flexibility and lower costs,” says Masson. “New demands for experiences such as on-demand services are driving manufacturers to re-evaluate their value chain to optimise performance, better meet customer expectations and differentiate their offerings to gain competitive edge. As a result, we’re going to see manufacturers, armed with new insights into their customers’ business, seeking tighter control over their value chain, including sales, which will push an increasing number of brands to explore direct-to-consumer options.”

Masson lists Microsoft Azure and Dynamics 365 among the technologies that are empowering organisations to track product usage and performance so they can create better user experiences. “By leveraging these tools, manufacturers can improve communication across the value chain, predict and respond more rapidly to trends, and better manage changes on the fly,” he says.

Intelligence is the keyword in this fast-paced business environment, with manufacturers leveraging AI and machine learning to create connected intelligent systems that make manufacturing smarter. “As technology becomes smarter, manufacturing is more connected and intelligent than ever,” says Masson. “Over the next year we’ll see the cloud, IoT, AI and machine learning augment first-line workers’ skills to enable more intelligent manufacturing supply chains.”

Research and development, and production processes are now also being transformed. “Manufacturing technology is becoming smarter, safer and more efficient,” says Masson. “In the next 12 months we’ll see digital twins providing manufacturers with an inexpensive way to test new products and environments and monitor products remotely. We will also start to see the broader adoption of advancements to both additive and subtractive manufacturing through hybrid manufacturing models. Other innovations, including autonomous devices, advanced materials and augmented reality/virtual reality, will gain broader adoption as manufacturers use them to improve workflows, unlock new product opportunities, and enable new levels of productivity and collaboration.”

Talent is an essential ingredient to create sustainable competitive advantage. “A new, diverse generation is entering the workforce, and it’s critical that manufacturers can meet their evolving expectations,” says Masson. “Manufacturers face an increasing skills gap, so it’s imperative that they seek new ways to fill critical roles on the front line and in the back office. Increasingly we will see manufacturing businesses working to attract young, tech-savvy workers to a career in manufacturing, retrain older employees, seek foreign labour, and tap the emerging gig economy to meet temporary labour demands.”

Masson points to Rockwell Automation as an industrial automation leader that is revolutionising the way this diverse workforce operates. “Rockwell Automation used the Windows 10 IoT Enterprise operating system to give manufacturing customers real-time insight into their operations,” he said. “It designed a hybrid automation controller that easily connects to customers’ IT environments and Microsoft Azure IoT Suite, giving them immediate access to data at the point of operation. These insights allow managers to make changes mid-shift, and have shortened decision-making time from hours to milliseconds.”

Finally, if one thing is certain, it’s that nothing is certain. To gain and keep the competitive edge, manufacturers must have robust risk management, the flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions, and the ability to scale easily – capabilities that are well within reach of a connected, intelligent enterprise. 

“Manufacturers need to navigate muddy waters through a turbulent, highly-politicised environment,” says Masson. “The world is changing and as a result, so is manufacturing. As the manufacturing companies of the past turn into the intelligent manufacturing businesses of the future, socially responsible manufacturing leaders must leverage technology to make theirs and their customers’ digital transformation, while improving safety and operations, providing greater transparency, and delivering more sustainable products, services, and experiences.” 

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