I recently returned from Microsoft’s Worldwide Partner Conference in Los Angeles, where several thousand people from hundreds of companies gathered to discuss issues and directions in technology. This is a major conference for Microsoft and its vendors, and every industry and region of the world were represented.
One theme I heard throughout the conference was the importance of making change easier for our customers. The issue was not change for change’s sake, but rather the important question of how we can make it easier to trade in your legacy technology, and the support costs that go with it, for a newer technology that reduces your cost of ownership, helps you do business better, or makes you more agile than your competition.
Of course everyone would agree with that goal, both the vendors and the enterprises that use technology. What struck me, as I listened to people from various industries talk about IT change, is that the issue is probably more crucial and more challenging in manufacturing than in any other sector.
This is partly because of the natural complexity of a manufacturing plant, with its countless dynamics in the form of customer orders, equipment, materials, parts and people. But it’s also because manufacturing IT, in many enterprises, is the last “black box” of enterprise technology. Corporate communications have been unified, desktops have been standardized, ERP is used across corporate functions and engineers increasingly rely on PLM.
But in manufacturing, the local plant often remains “off the grid” to one degree or another, frequently relying on local systems integrators who have their own preferred platforms, and local suppliers with their own procedures. ERP is lucky to get daily batch updates, which may or may not reflect the reality of that day’s activities.
Meanwhile, the global economy and the resulting global supply chains are pushing manufacturing in exactly the opposite direction – toward enterprise-wide coordinated, managed, standardized and agile manufacturing management.
From a technology point of view, there has been tremendous progress toward the goal of simplifying change in manufacturing. It now takes only a few months to bring a modern platform for manufacturing operations management online in a plant. New software versions can be implemented in a weekend; continuous process improvement can be performed in hours. And, in a few years, an entire enterprise with 40+ locations can be transitioned. So, the technology constraints and barriers no longer exist.
But change is always difficult. It only happens when the benefits clearly outweigh the cost of change itself. In the manufacturing sector, that moment may have arrived.