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April 6, 2011

Redmond Sets Sights on Manufacturing

Nicole Hemsoth

The concept of digital manufacturing forms an umbrella over any number of computationally-driven technological enhancements that feed the overall manufacturing supply chain. Generally speaking, this includes anything from 3D rendering and prototyping of new products, the use of modeling and simulation to speed time to market or test for quality, or to plan and collaborate throughout the entire lifecycle of any given product. In short, there’s far more than initially meets the eye involved here…

Last year the news that touched on this, at least in the cloud sphere, was somewhat limited. Many items that emerged included advancements in SaaS solutions, including announcements from Autodesk about its Project Cumulus and Project Centaur, for instance. Even during the HPC360 conference, which had a manufacturing bent, there was an incredible amount of interest in what clouds could do for the industry but some solutions and the pesky “small” implementation details were definitely lacking from vendor conversations—SaaS-based or otherwise.

A number of companies that attended that event were in the process of making decisions about how clouds fit into their infrastructure, cost, performance, and other goals but I think if they were to jump ahead just one year they’d be finding far more answers—or least good starting points. After all, this is technology we’re talking about and to say a lot can change in one year is a profound understatement.

This will be the year when vendors and manufacturing alike start to see (and then act on) the fact that digital manufacturing and cloud computing are a good fit; they complement one another technologically and logically. Since many manufacturers rely on cutting-edge modeling and simulation tools, for instance, this once meant they needed cutting-edge hardware to churn out ideas and speed lifecycles along, which added to upfront cost.

Now that cloud possibilities have nipped some hardware investment concerns in the bud (at least initially—we could argue at length about that sticky ROI with cloud for the long-haul issue, of course) what advances the technological/software end could equally advance the cloud computing adoption/use end.  Am I glossing over some realities here? Yes. Yes, I am. But this scenario is possible—and playing out—for some small to mid-size manufacturers—and without such smaller players feeding the supply chain the whole house of cards would collapse anyway.

Despite some of the hubbub about this (really, really important) sector of the economy snatching up cloud opportunities, there haven’t been many companies actively courting manufacturers. At least not outside of industry-focused events that set aside specific time to present to possible new customers. Microsoft, however, performed the equivalent of writing personalized invitations for the manufacturers of the world this week with an announcement that hints at a much broader manufacturing focus around the bend.

A couple of days ago the company launched its Reference Architecture Framework for Discrete Manufacturers Initiative to “accelerate cloud computing and improved collaboration across the value chain.”

More specifically, this focused push to the clouds across the manufacturing sector–from the top of the pyramid to the base—is intended to help companies collaborate on a global scale via the power of an increasing number of mobile devices connected via the cloud. And preferably its cloud offerings.

The group behind the effort has pulled in manufacturing giants, including Siemens MES and Tata Consultancy Services as well as other smaller, more focused organizations like Camstar Systems and Rockwell Automation.

According to Sanjay Ravi who oversees Microsoft’s Worldwide Discrete Manufacturing Industry division, the combination of globalization and new technology and devices have “fragmented industry value chains, making them more complex and unable to quickly respond to increased competition and shorter product life cycles.” He goes on to identify the emergence of cloud alternatives as the key to putting the pieces back together but notes that manufacturers are still looking for guidance about how they can benefit from cloud.

Presumably, this is the impetus behind the new initiative which Ravi claims will provide a response to this need for guidance “while offering a pragmatic solution road map for IT integration and adoption. The company got an earful from respondents to their recent Discrete Manufacturing Cloud Computing Survey that gathered the opinions of 152 IT and other leaders from a number of manufacturing sectors, including aerospace, electronics and heavy equipment makers–there just isn’t enough information or guidance.

There were many noteworthy elements in that survey but the most important takeaway here is, at least in one opinion here, that Microsoft smells blood.

Now I realize I’m going out into left field with this analogy here, but manufacturing is like that baby antelope on the National Geographic channel; abandoned by its mother in the vast savanna—it doesn’t know much and is prone to wandering aimlessly…And…well…

Am I saying that Microsoft is the lion discretely watching it walk on wobbly legs in this mini-fable? Not really—It might be that it is more of a shepard to lead it to a safe, stable patch. And when it comes to shepards, I guess the first big, strong one on the scene will do just nicely.

Microsoft does have the power to appeal to this huge customer base and it uses the keywords that are most likely to entice this segment of the market.

Ravi claims that “current cloud computing initiatives are targeted at cost reduction but a growing number of forward-looking companies are exploring new and innovative business capabilities uniquely delivered through the cloud.” He notes that this is taking hold in product design and what he terms “social product development” projects as well staking a claim for the value of added collaboration via the cloud. 

If some of this sounds like vendor hype behind clouds that approaches the topic far too generally, you might be right, but then again that seems to be the norm in terms of anything cloud-related these days. It’s more about who goes all carpe diem on an industry at the moment it smells weakness (in this case a lack of knowledge about implementation, practicality, etc). ‘Approach with caution’ can be read as ‘be as general as possible’ but nonetheless, by tackling the fact that the education and guidance are the missing piece, Microsoft might win itself a few manufacturing converts.

To go back to that HPC360 event from last year, there were a lot of questions about clouds in general but no one really answered them completely. This might be because even “way back then” (October) companies were still fleshing out their own strategy to take to this particular market. Through its recent survey, one of the main takeaways was that while there’s interest, there’s just as much confusion, but Microsoft is seizing this opportunity to tout itself as the expert—and lead the flock to a new era of digital manufacturing.

Now that I’ve had my say I’ll go back to my NatGeoTV and see if that weak, lost little antelope suddenly kicks up its heels and makes its own path.

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