Intelligent operations: smarter manufacturing

Posted on 4 Jun 2015 by Malcolm Wheatley

The best way to understand the competitive edge offered by smarter manufacturing is to try it out, Microsoft’s Colin Masson tells IT Contributing Editor Malcolm Wheatley.

Colin Masson, global industry director for manufacturing & distribution, Microsoft.
Colin Masson, global industry director for manufacturing & distribution, Microsoft.

Are smaller manufacturers missing out on an opportunity to level the playing field? Could they really—and unknowingly— be in a position to steal a march on their bigger competitors?

That, in short, was the prospect held out in last month’s interview with Colin Masson, Microsoft’s global industry director for manufacturing and distribution.

It’s a viewpoint that clearly has an obvious appeal—not least to those smaller manufacturers, of course. But where, exactly, are the opportunities? What do manufacturers have to do to grasp them? And what scale of investment is required?

Which were the very questions that I put to him, when we sat down in the wake of the Hannover Messe industrial trade fair and Smarter Manufacturing Summit for CEOs, where Microsoft had been showcasing some of the technologies in question.

“What are the technologies? The technologies that we’ve been talking about in these pages over the last few months: ERP; CRM; the internet of things (IoT); big data; mobile; cloud; predictive analytics, and so on: collectively, we call it intelligent operations.

“And smaller manufacturers haven’t really grasped that intelligent operations can be a great leveller.”

Microsoft PQMasson’s argument is seductively simple. Large manufacturers have economies of scale, and muscle. And that’s how they compete. But smaller manufacturers have agility, speed, and flexibility.

Put another way, smaller manufacturers can decide to do something—and then do it—while larger manufacturers are still having meetings about building the business case, and who should be responsible for running it.

“Which is exactly the point,” he enthuses. “Our message to manufacturers is that technologies such as big data don’t have to mean big money: start small, start on a subscription basis, and develop a proof-of-concept.

“Within weeks, and with little outlay, you can be engaging with customers in new ways, developing new insights, and gaining new perspectives into operational efficiencies or mining your data.

“You can start levelling the playing field right now— with minimal risk, and at minimal cost.”

CxOs Top of Mind in 2015 - Microsoft InfographicSo where to start? Ticking them off on his fingers, Masson promptly suggests five ways to get the ball rolling—stressing that each can readily be undertaken on a “proof-of-concept” basis with minimal IT overhead and effort.

“Take your social pulse,” he enthuses. “Listen to what your customers are saying about your products and services on social channels, and then engage with them using Microsoft Social Engagement. Or empower your service agents, and help customers help themselves with Service by Microsoft Dynamics.”

“Boosting sales productivity is another quick win: connect mobile sales teams on any device, anywhere, so they can collaborate and close more deals, more quickly—with Sales Productivity for Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, Office 365, and Power BI.”

“And don’t forget the factory: begin an Internet of Your Things proof-of-concept— identify a new business model with a Quick Start Consultation on Microsoft Azure IoT Services, or add intelligence to your operations with a Microsoft Azure Machine Learning subscription, and discover that you don’t need big data infrastructure and a team of data scientists in order to acquire a predictive analytics capability.

Microsoft Dynamics LinkCombined with Microsoft Dynamics Enterprise Resource Planning all these solutions provide powerful capabilities for a manufacturer.”

In short, sums up Masson, there certainly isn’t a shortage of low-hanging fruit. The only problem: which to pick first? As problems go, it’s not a bad one to have.