The pace of innovation

At a glitzy gathering in Atlanta, Georgia in the US last month, Microsoft showcased the latest technologies on the horizon for businesses, manufacturers included. Malcolm Wheatley went along to see what the future holds.

Held in the American city of Atlanta in early March, Microsoft’s annual Convergence bash brought together more than 12,000 delegates from across the globe.

Kicked off by Microsoft veteran Kirill Tatarinov, who heads Microsoft Business Solutions, the multi-track event aimed to deliver something for everyone with a blend of workshops, user group sessions, presentations and high-profile keynote speeches.

And underpinning all this, quite literally, was a vast subterranean exhibition hall showcasing independent solution providers, including the UK’s own eBECS and Columbus implementation and solutions specialists.

For manufacturers, there were several pieces of news. For one thing, Microsoft is mid-way through an aggressive upgrade programme, and this spring will see new upgrade releases of both Microsoft’s flagship Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 suite, as well as Dynamics GP 2012 – the latter being Microsoft’s financially-oriented ‘out of the box’ midmarket solution.

“We’re delivering innovation,” enthused Tatarinov, pointing to Windows 8.1, Microsoft CRM 2013, and a host of other new releases and scheduled new releases including Microsoft Dynamics Marketing, which aims to do for businesses’ marketing campaigns what Microsoft Dynamics CRM does for their customer relationship management.

Take the tablets

Perhaps not coincidentally, much of the excitement on show revolved around either Microsoft CRM or Windows 8.1 (in the form of tablet computers), or a combination of both. What’s more, Microsoft was also keen to emphasise that Windows 8.1 made it easy to develop and deploy custom apps designed to interface with Dynamics AX, without presenting users with the full breadth of Dynamics AX capabilities.

Take fashionable Fort Collins-based microbrewery New Belgium Brewing for instance, at which on-the-road salespeople are dubbed ‘rangers’, and headquarters is known as the mothership. IT director Travis Morrison was on hand to demonstrate on stage to all 12,000 delegates, a nifty CRM application as well as a warehouse management and inventory management application underpinned by Windows 8.1 tablets and custom apps.

“Mobility is important for our rangers, and important for our shopfloor people too,” said Morrison. “It’s all about the unification of the front end and the back end – and tablets help us to achieve that.”

Grapevine

New Belgium Brewing also handily happens to be among those consumer-facing manufacturers most likely to benefit from one of the convergence event’s biggest announcements – the launch of a Microsoft ‘social listening’ tool, acquired when the company bought Swiss-based Netbreeze, which specialises in the technology.

Social listening, as the name implies, involves tracking and proactively dealing with consumer concerns across a wide range of social media – Facebook, Twitter and so on.

Will it be a hit? Microsoft obviously hopes so, given the attendant hype. But it’s got a tough act to follow. Microsoft Dynamics CRM, pointed out Tatarinov, now has four million users across 40,000 customers and has delivered 38 consecutive quarters of high double-digit growth.

For a company that is sometimes accused of misjudging customer needs, that’s an impressive number of businesses voting with their budgets.

Under the bonnet

For manufacturers, the latest release of Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 has some interesting developments. Malcolm Wheatley finds out more.

So what exactly can manufacturers expect to see from the R3 release of Microsoft Dynamics AX 2012 when it becomes available later this spring? Pepijn Richter, Microsoft’s amiable head of product marketing for Dynamics AX lost no time in enumerating the goodies on offer.

To begin with, he says, there are new, fully-integrated modules for transportation management and warehouse management. Incorporating intellectual property acquired from specialist Dynamics AX solution partner Blue Horseshoe, the highlight of these new capabilities are their support for mobile warehouse-floor or remote tablet computers, enabling instant and full ‘out of the box’ connectivity with Dynamics AX from any mobile tablet.

Android too

Microsoft does mean any mobile tablet device too, Richter stresses. While Windows 8.1 tablets were the showcased devices of choice being demonstrated at Atlanta, support for Apple’s IOS and Android is only a matter of months behind.

Better still, he adds, those same Windows 8.1, IOS and Android tablet computers will also interact with Microsoft’s factory-floor and CRM applications, extending manufacturers’ ability to connect such devices either to native Dynamics AX applications, or manufacturers’ own custom-developed applications. “You can work and collaborate in real time, very

quickly,” he enthuses. “Reporting, for instance, you can notify the start of a job, the end of a job, any waste, and any other information of  choice – right from a low-cost $200 device. Plus, operatives can pull up manufacturing documentation, special instructions and so on, again from this same $200 device.”

And for the future, he adds, Microsoft is working to incorporate images taken with tablet computers’ cameras, providing the ability to not only report waste, damage and quality issues but also instantly capture photographic evidence, making it part of the Dynamics AX system of record.

Core, blimey

Whizzy technology apart though, Microsoft has also invested quite heavily, hints Richter, in boosting its capabilities in demand forecasting and product change management.

In the case of demand forecasting, he explains, Microsoft has taken its existing demand forecasting capability, for which Microsoft Research (the company’s R&D arm) had developed an extensive suite of forecasting algorithms and added the ability to incorporate external data sources and external review and forecast manipulation.

“We’ve taken the core SQL forecasting ability and allowed users to mesh the forecasts with other data sources, such as weather information, in conjunction with Microsoft Excel,” explains Richter.

The new product change management capability also leverages an existing capability, in this case CRM, he notes. There was, he explains, an overlap between the internal business process required for CRM case management and those involved in product change management. Rather than reinvent the wheel, says Richter, it made sense to leverage something that was already in place and working well.

And from warehouse management to demand forecasting, and transport to product change management, these new capabilities are built into the core, standard product, stresses Richter.

“Third party solutions via independent software vendors will remain on offer,” he sums up. “But these new capabilities, going forward, are part of our core product.”