Need nimbleness in your lean manufacturing facility? Try Microsoft Azure
Over the last four decades the manufacturing sector has changed considerably. Gone are massive operations with thousands of workers. Today, lean manufacturing facilities with automated equipment dominate the landscape. Of the more than 251,000 firms remaining in the United States, roughly 98 percent are considered small-scale operations, according to data from the National Association of Manufacturers. In fact, 75 percent of these lean production outfits staff fewer than 20 employees.
Consequently, technology has assumed an important role within the industry, as automated devices and software systems now perform mission-critical functions once reserved for human workers. Of course, technology firms have attempted to address this need, developing new digital tools tailored to the manufacturing sector. However, few have succeeded in offering viable solutions and even fewer have formed real partnerships with those in the vaunted arena. Microsoft is in the latter group, wielding immense influence via a variety of innovative products with the potential to bolster lean manufacturers and move the entire industry forward once more.
Azure on the shop floor
With this influx of data-heavy production technology, organizations in the industry have been forced to strengthen their digital infrastructures. More than two-thirds have turned to cloud services, including Microsoft Azure. Industry 4.0 necessitates the near constant flow of data and Azure delivers this capability, allowing manufacturers to tap into scalable processing and storage reserves that can move with the operation. Plus, manufacturers that leverage Azure have access to a host of add-ons, including machine learning and microservice application modules.
More than data storage
With Azure access, lean manufacturers can tap into the entirety of the Microsoft Office 365 suite and use time-tested products like Excel, Outlook and Word to bolster internal productivity and build backend processes as flexible and efficient as modern production workflows. Of course, the software maker hosts myriad new tools that function well in manufacturing environments and allow those in the industry to embrace new staffing trends. For instance, OneNote and Skype For Business facilitate remote working arrangements, which are common across all sectors. These applications also support collaborative workflows, allowing users to take advantage of file-sharing and group-based project tools.
Azure also integrates with Dynamics, an industry-leading enterprise resource planning platform designed to support data-based operations of any kind. Today, more than 200,000 companies use the platform to streamline production processes, track job costs and connect with customers and vendors, according to Dynamics usage data obtained by ERP Software Blog.
An eye toward the future
While Azure presents myriad advantages from a productivity perspective, the platform’s real potential lies in newer modules made to support the Internet of Things. Early adopters have seen great success with connected production tools, including substantive efficiency and equipment effectiveness gains, the professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers discovered. As these technologies mature, more lean manufacturers are bound to board the IoT bandwagon. This of course requires the implementation of next-generation digital infrastructure and this is where Microsoft enters the equation.
The Azure cloud computing solution comes equipped with the IoT Suite, which can support literally millions of devices and offers top-of-the-line data security protections, including multi-factor authentication and enterprise-level data encryption options. Microsoft has worked with several leading manufacturers to perfect the feature. Earlier this year, the technology giant worked with the consumer goods company Honeywell to develop a smart manufacturing facility equipped with web-enabled sensors meant to track workplace conditions and ensure employee safety. In November, Microsoft partnered with cutting tool manufacturer Sandvik Coromant to build an IoT-powered service model to shore up its supply chain and streamline the fabrication process.
Developments such as these make Microsoft an immensely powerful influencer within the manufacturing industry and point toward even more exciting developments to come. Lean manufacturers looking to gain a leg up on competitors and develop nimble business and production processes would be wise to look toward Azure, Office 365 and other Microsoft products, as they have often had transformative effects.