Back to the future

It’s time to re-think manufacturing. Colin Masson, Microsoft’s global industry director for manufacturing and distribution, talks to IT contributing editor Malcolm Wheatley.

For manufacturers, what constitutes the biggest barrier to achieving a significant step-change in performance? With the manufacturing industry once more resurgent after the recession of 2008 to 2010, it’s an obvious enough question for manufacturing companies to ask.

Yet it’s a question to which Colin Masson, Microsoft’s global industry director for manufacturing and distribution, has an unusual reply.

Because for many manufacturers, he insists, the biggest barrier to progress is simply imagining what actually might be possible.

“Huge changes in manufacturing industry are underway,” he points out. “Manufacturers are shifting from making and selling products, to identifying and meeting customer needs, and it’s taking them in some wholly new directions.”

Servitisation, for instance, where manufacturers exchange a product-centric view of the marketplace with a service-centric view, going so far in some cases as to sell product usage by the hour, just as Rolls-Royce does with jet engines.

Or accelerated new product development, fuelled by computer-aided simultaneous engineering processes, and technologies such as rapid prototyping and 3D printing.

Or real-time supply chain integration, vital if manufacturers are to cope with today’s world of fickle customers, volatile demand, vastly reduced lead times, ultra-short batch runs and frequent changeovers.

And the answer, he observes, is to ignore the various buzzwords that are in circulation, and instead pursue manufacturing strategies that directly address customer needs and the underlying challenges posed by this brave new digital world.

“We’d say that it boils down to doing three things, and doing them well,” he stresses. “First, aim to enhance the customer experience – any movement in that direction will clearly pay dividends. Second, become more responsive – realign manufacturing and supply chain culture and metrics with customer experience goals. And third, undertake a transformation to becoming a digital business, from digital marketing to digital design and manufacturing, where progress will pay dividends in the form of more connected supply chains, faster new product introduction, higher productivity, and greater responsiveness.”

In other words, says Masson, put these strategies in place, and the specifics of how to move forward become clearer.

“In short, it’s about becoming obsessed with your customers, and re-imagining what your manufacturing business could be, and then beginning the process of working towards that goal,” he notes. “And the good news is that the underlying technologies that deliver that transformation have never been more powerful, or as cost-effective: the Cloud, for instance, is a huge leveller, putting smaller businesses on exactly the same footing as larger companies.”

What’s more, he adds, much the same point can be made for most of today’s transformative technologies: CRM, ERP, mobile, the ‘Internet of Things’, Big Data, Machine Learning, ‘social listening’, and so on.

“Don’t start from where you are now, thinking in terms of small incremental steps forward from today’s position,” he concludes. “Look ahead, think about where you want to go, and then we’ll start to talk about the journey that’s involved in becoming a dynamic manufacturer.”

Interested in finding out more? Additional material at UK Dynamic Manufacturer.