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Cloud computing, mobile top manufacturing technology in 2012

Machine-to-machine tools are among the top manufacturing technology trends of 2012.

As many manufacturers continued the slow, steady, climb out of the pits of recession this past year, opportunities to explore --or expand upon -- new technologies arose.

From building a greener supply chain to creating a flexible and secure mobile business, here are some of the biggest manufacturing technology trends of 2012 for manufacturing IT.

Mobile computing more commonplace, but more complicated

With device costs falling and the number of available apps growing, mobile computing became a real option for many manufacturers in 2012. For some, such as packaging manufacturer CDF Corp., mobile computing was a natural extension of its existing ERP system and a means to improve the agility of operations ranging from purchasing and production to sales.

Manufacturers discovered mobile apps for nearly every area of their businesses. Mobile procurement, for example, offers manufacturers much in the way of productivity and cross-enterprise communication. Mobile financial applications can provide access to important business data on the go, but many companies are spooked by the serious security risks involved. In the warehouse, mobile warehouse management systems (WMS) help workers quickly locate parts and products. Mobile is particularly useful in transportation, with mobile logistics management supplying up-to-the-minute information on shipment location and status.

Unfortunately, new mobility options have not come without headaches. Manufacturers must wrestle with the bring-your-own-device question -- that is, whether to provide mobile devices to employees or let them use their own. The answer comes down to the convenience of device and application standardization versus the cost of providing them. In either case, with more tablet and smartphones options flooding stores, choosing a mobile computing device has become more complicated than ever, and manufacturing IT managers must build a strong business case for mobile ERP, BI and other applications to justify the cost and training needed.

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Beyond device selection, manufacturers also faced the challenge of simplifying their mobile business applications across their organizations. To avoid common mobile ERP mistakes, industry experts stressed the importance of running the same versions of applications on each device to avoid silos, as well as ensuring reliable network connectivity.

Cloud computing a less lofty goal

Cloud computing saw increased adoption in a number of manufacturing verticals in 2012, particularly consumer products, chemical manufacturing, high tech manufacturing and the automotive industry. Other verticals may be slowed down by the sheer number of Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service and Infrastructure as a Service options and by an older workforce that may be resistant to new technology, experts say.

2012 also saw more large and midsized manufacturers exploring the cloud -- typically a more viable option for small manufacturers -- with executives regarding cloud computing as less of a risk and more of a cost-saving opportunity. The benefits of cloud computing for manufacturers of all sizes became clear, from easier supply chain compliance and procurement to real-time BI and analytics.

As more manufacturers made the choice between cloud and on-premises systems, they also looked at strategies for avoiding the risks long associated with cloud ERP integration. Experts recommended involving IT and procurement teams in cloud services selection, deployment and maintenance in help handle bumps along the road, such as long-term support issues.

Big name vendors made some equally big moves in the cloud space in 2012, from Microsoft's Dynamic NAV 2013 release and the Microsoft and SAP Duet Enterprise collaboration to public cloud releases from Epicor, Sage and SAP.

M2M technology boosts remote monitoring

Faced with growing global supply chains, manufacturers looked for new ways to connect remotely, both with colleagues and customers. Machine-to-machine technology (M2M) has made it possible to monitor and even service equipment and products from halfway around the world, eliminating unnecessary -- and costly -- service trips.

With the help of expanding wireless networks, manufacturers used M2M in 2012 to train personnel, pinpoint the right time for product restocking, provide remote customer service, and keep track of pallets throughout shipping.

Manufacturers in the energy and utilities verticals have found M2M technology particularly useful, leveraging it to remotely read meters, turn services on and off and schedule maintenance ahead of time based on site usage.

Manufacturers sustain interest in green initiatives

As companies looked for new ways to cut costs throughout the supply chain and stay in line with environmental compliance laws, sustainability continued to be a popular topic among manufacturers.

Manufacturers explored their product compliance software options. Integrating this software with other business systems can often be a challenge, but new offerings from small application vendors are making the process easier.

Some manufacturers led the charge for greener supply chains in 2012. The work of DuPont's Peter W. Murray served as a good example of how supply chain sustainability can be a lucrative business initiative. Manufacturer Harbec Inc. is making wind turbines, recycling, rainwater collection and carbon accounting software part of its everyday operations.

New environmental standards from the EPA and international organizations pushed the need for better carbon monitoring and reporting software, and vendors have risen to the occasion.

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