Microsoft expands business apps with simplified CRM and more

Microsoft today unveiled a massive set of updates aimed at improving its business applications, including its Dynamics 365 suite and Power BI analytics service.

The new products and features are designed to make the technology giant more competitive against the likes of Salesforce, Tableau, Oracle, SAP, and others. While Microsoft’s business applications haven’t always been important to the tech giant, it has focused over the past few years on making them increasingly competitive and central to its business.

To start, Microsoft announced a new Dynamics 365 for Sales Professional service that’s supposed to provide a lighter-weight customer relationship management (CRM) system for smaller businesses that don’t need the full power of Dynamics 365 for Sales.

Dynamics 365 for Marketing, which was introduced in beta last year, will become generally available and provides marketing automation capabilities for customers so they can better plan the impact of their campaigns.

James Phillips, VP in charge of the Business Applications Group, said the company still values its partnership with Adobe, which offers its own Marketing Cloud suite. In his view, enterprises that need powerful marketing automation capabilities will be better served by Microsoft’s partner. But customers were asking for a simple, business-to-business marketing software offering, and Microsoft wanted to fill that need.

Microsoft also unveiled a new Common Data Service for Analytics, which is designed to provide a consistent platform for data analysis with a single schema. The service, combined with Microsoft’s Power Query technology, allows companies to pull in data from multiple sources and put it all in one consistent form. That’s a first step that will help enable the forthcoming Power BI Insights apps, which will provide customers with pre-built intelligent dashboards based on the data they provide Microsoft’s analytics service.

The first two apps, which are expected to launch this spring, are Power BI for Sales Insights, and Power BI for Service Insights. For example, Sales Insights will provide salespeople with information about how they are performing, along with a score for how their customer relationships are going. Those capabilities seem similar to Sales Cloud Einstein features Salesforce has made available to its customers.

In addition to Power BI, customers can pipe information from the Common Data Service for Analytics into Microsoft Azure for further processing through services like Azure Machine learning or Azure Databricks. Microsoft will also make it possible for third parties to extend the CDS for Analytics schema and build additional applications on top of it.

Ingesting data into the Common Data Service for Analytics does require some initial setup if customers are importing information from sources that don’t conform to its schema. However, once they’ve set up rules in Power Query, the system’s ingestion will continue unabated.

Microsoft has even more in the works for its business applications. Phillips told VentureBeat that the company is working on enhancing customers’ business apps with its proprietary data to make them more valuable.

(Source: Venture Beat)

RFID and Lean Manufacturing Are a Perfect Pair

Companies that know manufacturing know lean is the way to go. But even lean operations might have some work to do if they’re not using the right tools.

As far as advanced technology goes in the manufacturing sector, RFID is actually pretty simple. For just pennies each, radio frequency identification tags, or chips, can enhance your top-down understanding of everything happening in your manufacturing outfit and make your lean operation even leaner still.

RFID Facilitates an Organization-Wide Culture of Improvement

We shouldn’t have to explain the benefits of lean manufacturing. Suffice it to say, reducing waste and redundancy benefits profitability one company at a time, but it also helps reduce the cumulative “footprint” of the entire industry. But doing any of this well requires companies to make continuous process improvements a matter of their culture. And making improvements means gathering information you can act upon.

RFID can improve the fundamentals of your operation by helping you gather information far more quickly than you could using conventional means. What information? Things like:

  • The location of raw materials and finished products within one facility, whether on the assembly line or stowed away in your racks for retrieval.
  • The level of available inventory at each of several facilities.
  • The speed at which parts and unfinished products move from one phase of to the next, and the time required for each step along the way.

Lean manufacturers already know that their “front-line” workers are in a great position to identify sources of waste and to tag opportunities for improvement. But adding RFID technology to your operation can put even more tools into the hands of these workers.

You might be worried about data overload, but RFID adopters have already logged positive results after making RFID technology a part of new employee training from the very beginning. Empowering employees with this type of data-gathering technology, in an environment that values continual positive change, results in real worker empowerment. This, in turn, makes them more likely to spot bottlenecks and areas that could stand to be reevaluated.

RFID Makes Inventory Maintenance Practically Painless

Inventory maintenance is a time-consuming task for almost any outfit. In times now happily behind us, “doing inventory” by hand could take hundreds of hours or more. But with RFID technology, you can accomplish the same task, and come away with the same information, in just two hours in many cases.

There are several specific use cases that might be of interest here. An RFID-powered inventory system also gives you a tool for tracking the age and expiration of products across one facility or several. Perishable goods like foods and beverages are an obvious fit, but so is any portion of the supply chain that touches the medical fields. Hospitals rely on the steady movement of a dizzying variety of disposable products such as splints, bandages, pads for EKG machines and even bedpans, some of which have finite shelf lives.

By tagging sensitive inventory like this with RFID chips, you can more easily move slower-moving items from one location to another to ensure they’re used before their shelf life expires. It’s another way to make sure nothing’s being manufactured that doesn’t strictly need to be.

RFID Delivers More Actionable Data for Quality Control and Efficiency Checks

The technology that powers RFID is the heir apparent to the barcode, which let manufacturers perform a lot of the tasks we’re talking about here today, but required far more time and handling. Whereas barcodes need to be scanned one at a time, and usually by hand, RFID tags can be read by the corresponding receiver in bulk, meaning it’s easier than ever to see at a glance which products, and how many, arrived on your dock. It also means you can tell right away whether it’s actually what you ordered.

This part of quality control is made vastly easier with RFID tech on your side. So is the swapping-out of merchandise that was damaged in transit. The benefits here are twofold — customers get to expect faster turnaround times and resolution, while employers get to spend less labor and money on taking corrective actions. Each process can be performed by smaller teams of employees and with fewer “touches” on the products, which means fewer opportunities for you to introduce errors of your own into the mix.

It’s worth mentioning industrial certifications in this context, too. Obtaining certification in accordance with ISO and other international quality standards means building a deliberate, repeatable and scalable process to ensure consistent results throughout your operation. Since RFID technology provides abundant insights precisely along these lines, it could prove invaluable if the work you do requires specific credentials or accreditations from governing bodies.

RFID Provides Immediate Insights From Retail and Point-of-Sale

We’ve talked mostly about the production side of things, but the hugely important other side of the lean manufacturing “coin” is getting insight from the consumer’s side of things. That means retail.

RFID tags reduce friction in your operations while delivering data more reliably and quickly. But they can accomplish the same thing in a retail setting, too, by delivering information immediately about which products are leaving stores quickly and which locations have a surplus that another location could use.

This has implications beyond inventory tracking — it’s really an up-to-the-minute-accurate glimpse into the shopping habits and locations of the audiences you’re ultimately targeting. Lean manufacturing answers “demand” with an ever-more-efficiently-delivered “supply.” RFID delivers huge efficiency boosts on both sides of that equation.

That’s the key takeaway here: introducing RFID into a lean manufacturing operation is a win for all involved. From supply all the way to demand, it’s easier than ever to know what’s happening under your roof — and how it all fits into the bigger picture.


Taking Lean To The Next Level

While manufacturers have used lean principles for decades to increase their productivity and reduce complexity, smart technologies can now be integrated to enhance the impact.

Daniel Küpper, partner and managing director at the operations and industrial goods practice at Boston Consulting Group, told that manufacturers seeking to optimize their operations need to understand the interplay between traditional lean management and Industry 4.0. A survey by Boston Consulting Group found that leading industrial companies recognize the importance of both lean management and digitization, yet many don’t understand how to combine the two.

“The integrated application of lean manufacturing and Industry 4.0 – which we call Lean Industry 4.0 – is the most effective way to reach the next level of operational excellence,” Küpper said.

Küpper noted five main areas where manufacturers can implement Lean Industry 4.0 to optimize performance. This included using sensors and software to facilitate more efficient changeovers, using predicative algorithms to improve autonomous maintenance, accelerating production management with real-time data, implementation self-inspection with data-driven quality control systems, and using sensors and virtual reality to improve working conditions. Because the integrated approach allows lean management and Industry 4.0 to be mutually enabling, its improvement potential is greater than the sum of improvements attained by each individually.

“For example, using sensors and data to provide full transparency into bottlenecks allows the company to sharpen the focus of its lean efforts to improve OEE,” Kupper said.

It’s also important to first create efficiencies in the underlying processes otherwise the company will simply automate its waste. For instance, a company that invests in deploying robots before optimizing its processes will simply have robots performing no-value added activities.

GE Appliances says it is on track to become a Lean Enterprise in all areas of its business and operations. GE Lean Enterprise Leader Marcia Bray told Global Manufacturing that the company is aiming to become an organization that applies lean thinking to everything it does to improve the ownership experience for its customers. A full lean enterprise starts with putting the owner first, designing winning products, optimizing the system, and creating a thorough process from factory production to ordering and inventory flow.

Putting the owner first means putting “zero distance to the customer” and prioritizing what actions are implemented, Bray says. That means working cross-functionally to solve problems at the system level and asking team members to walk in the shoes of GE’s owners, retailers and service technicians.

When it comes to products, GE is focusing on wining definitions, determine by owners and commercial teams, Bray says. GE promotes an “outside-in” focus where each function in the value steam executives against the same strategy. Using data and functions from product design to distribution, the team creates a cohesive plan to meet the customer’s need. The approach ultimately ensures that the problem or issue the company is facing is the same one the customer is experiencing. “What style of refrigerator is our traditionalist asking for? Where will we manufacture it? Which quality materials are essential? What added features are not?” Bray says.

Other manufacturers are racing to implement new lean principles as the benefits have been enhanced by analytics and smart technologies. Tesla CEO Elon Musk told analysts in early February that the company may outdo even other auto makers in its lean practices. Musk called many of today’s auto factors as slower than a “grandma with a walker.”

“The car industry thinks they’re really good at manufacturing and actually they are quite good at manufacturing. But they just don’t realize just how much potential there is for improvement. It’s way more than they think,” Musk said.

Larry Fast, founder and president of Pathways to Manufacturing Excellence, told Industry Week that once new ERP platforms are in place, AI will be a “game changer” in factories. In the near future such technologies could enable manufacturing companies to guarantee Six Sigma every time on customer’s critical-to-quality requirements. “These developing technologies and their implementation will be the next big paradigm shift that will cause manufacturing companies to either take a huge leap forward or else be left in the competitions’ dust,” Fast said.