Technological innovation means this isn’t your father’s factory

A wave of technology innovation has left manufacturers well-placed to re-think how they can serve their customers, Microsoft’s Colin Masson tells IT Contributing Editor Malcolm Wheatley.

Microsoft Factory
Greater numbers of manufacturers are spending more money on IT projects.

As a breed, manufacturers are pragmatic folk. Innovation – whether of products, IT systems, or workplace practice – generally comprises a series of gradual changes to the status quo, letting each change fully bed in before moving to the next.

It’s a cautious approach that has worked well. But are there signs of change afoot? Because it’s certainly not difficult to come across manufacturers embracing – and with an enthusiasm unheard of a few short years ago – technologies such as additive manufacturing, rapid prototyping, smart devices, and the Internet of Things.

And in the process, something quite distinct is happening. Namely, that they’re changing their whole customer-facing proposition, says Colin Masson, Microsoft’s global industry director for manufacturing and distribution.

“What we’re starting to see is manufacturers piecing all these new and emerging technologies together in order to re-imagine the entire customer decision journey,” he enthuses. “For once, it’s not about making small incremental changes, but fundamentally re-thinking every aspect of how they serve customers – right from product design and configuration, through to delivering the best possible aftersales service.”

For proof, he points out, just take a look at The Manufacturer’s own Annual Manufacturing Report for 2015.

Significantly greater numbers of manufacturers are spending more money on IT projects, and focusing that new investment on realigning their businesses around customer impacting areas of their business – CRM, ERP, aftersales service, and product development.

“Customer experiences are quickly becoming a significant competitive differentiator, and by focusing on delivering great customer experiences which customers will want to share, manufacturers can create much more sustainable and much more profitable relationships,” sums up Masson.

Microsoft PQ“But it’s not about achieving ‘digital convergence’ in isolation: intelligent operations are needed to deliver on customer promises – which calls for breaking down the internal walls of the organisation, empowering people with direct access to tools and information, and building truly connected business processes aligned with the end-to-end customer decision journey.”

So what does that mean in practice? Microsoft sees manufacturers executing three core strategies in their pursuit of this goal, says Masson.

“First, they’re focusing on creating amazing customer experiences with intelligent customer engagement solutions that are personalised, proactive and predictive – pulling data from call centres, social channels, the field salesforce, and customer feedback into a single, coherent ‘view of the customer’, and then leveraging that to drive improvement.

“Second, they’re investing in the digital workplace – building a mobile-first digital business that’s more productive, better engaged with customers, and firmly focused on meeting digitally enabled customers as peers.

“And third, they’re working hard to become more responsive to their customers, aiming to be market-driven, and not just demand-driven. In other words, they’re investing in their manufacturing, engineering and supply chain operations, making them more agile, more capable, and more responsive.”

Roll it all together, concludes Masson, and there’s an obvious overlap between Microsoft’s own technology footprint and the sort of technology capabilities that manufacturers will be looking for as they aim to reflect these goals in their day to day operations.

Microsoft DynamicsNamely, Microsoft Dynamics AX ERP, Microsoft Dynamics CRM, and a host of connective capabilities stretching from the Internet of Things through to machine learning and smart mobile devices for the workplace.

“Talk to us,” he sums up. “We understand manufacturing and are probably already powering your shop floor – and we have everything you need to transform your customers’ experiences.”