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Top five manufacturing IT questions of 2013

There was a lot to question in manufacturing IT this past year, from the safety of open source 3-D printing to the impact of Microsoft Dynamics in the cloud.

The ups and downs of the manufacturing IT industry raised many questions in 2013. Newer technologies, such as 3-D printing and cloud computing, became more complex, while old-school technologies such as supply chain management and ERP faced new challenges. Let's take a look back at some of the biggest manufacturing IT questions of 2013 -- and the stories that helped answer them.

How will Microsoft Dynamics in the cloud change the on-demand ERP landscape?

Back in March, Microsoft's big announcement at its Convergence conference was that its Dynamics NAV and GP ERP systems would be available on its Azure cloud platform. Customers were left wondering how their service would change if they elected to take advantage of this new service model. Experts agreed that the prime benefit of Dynamics in the cloud would be its collaboration potential -- users could more easily and quickly share information across the organization with multiple offices, external users and even suppliers, without everyone involved needing to have Dynamics installed on premises. The new ability to access Dynamics data on the road -- specifically, on mobile devices -- was also a game changer for customers.

On the vendor side, Dynamics in the cloud put some pressure on Microsoft's main ERP competitors, SAP and Oracle. As Gartner's Christian Hestermann noted, the Microsoft cloud ERP strategy was suddenly outpacing Oracle's notoriously slow approach to on-demand services and placed the company neck-and-neck with SAP's more established cloud presence. The real winner, however, was anybody who was shopping around for a new ERP. More cloud options means more competition -- and ultimately, better service.

Who made Gartner's Supply Chain Top 25, and why?

Gartner's yearly roundup is the who's who of supply chain innovators -- the companies that are truly excelling at managing a demand-driven supply chain. This year's Supply Chain Top 25 featured some familiar faces, with Apple once again winning first place, but it also saw new movers and shakers entering the supply chain game.

Ford, Lenovo and Qualcomm were notable additions to the list, while past winners such as Kimberly-Clark, Hewlett-Packard and BlackBerry failed to make the cut. Every company in the Supply Chain Top 25 had a few things in common, according to Gartner's Stan Aronow. First, the winners were able to effectively manage changes in demand. Second, they all took a networked approach to global supply chain management, a must in today's marketplace. Finally, each company made technological innovation a key part of its daily supply chain operations.

Is open source 3-D printing safe?

Once a concept that seemed straight out of a sci-fi movie, 3-D printing really came into its own in 2013, with more vendors entering the market and more computer-aided design (CAD) artists putting their creations online for public consumption. But with many of these 3-D files being open source and customizable, questions arose about the potential security issues that could arise in a technology that is still very much in its Wild West phase.

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For manufacturers, the number one concern is patent infringement. There isn't much stopping unauthorized parties from posting CAD models of product knockoffs, and companies like Square Enix have already taken legal action against unlicensed sellers.

There's also the question of whether a customizable design is a safe design. Modifications made to, say, weapons or machine part models could render the final product unsafe, and it's still unclear whether the original patent holders would be held accountable in these cases. Still, experts agree that 3-D printing is still too new -- and too limited -- to keep manufacturers up at night just yet.

Are tier 1 ERP systems still the best bet?

In the fall of 2013, Panorama Consulting Solutions released a study that showed that tier 1 ERP vendors are hardly setting the world on fire when it comes to customer satisfaction. While industry giants SAP, Oracle and Microsoft are still outselling their smaller competitors, they might not want to get too cocky.

According to the report, tier 1 ERP implementations are consistently going over budget, and the vast majority of them cause some material disruption in operations. Additionally, most tier 1 ERP projects end up taking longer than initially projected. Consumers might still be willing to play along now, but it's unclear how long the Big Three can keep falling short of customer expectations before tier 2 vendors become a more enticing deal.

Are supply chains less secure now than ever?

Supply chain security issues continued to be on manufacturers' minds in 2013. As Steve Durbin of the Information Security Forum noted, supply chains have grown to new levels of complexity in recent years, and that trend shows no signs of reversing. Between the increasingly global nature of supply chains and the regulatory headaches that come along with it to the addition of cloud computing and mobile devices, today's supply chain management is a tangled web indeed.

More complex supply chains certainly leave more room for hackers and other ill-intentioned outsiders to break into sensitive data, but Durbin encourages supply chain leaders to think less about security leak prevention and more about how companies should respond to such leaks. It may be impossible to ensure that data breaches never happen, but it's very possible to create a supply chain security response strategy that gets the system back up and running quickly, minimizes damage and -- perhaps most importantly -- preserves the company's reputation as a safe organization to do business with.

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I need to know how will banks and other finance companies with responsibility for the public's funds protect and back up sensitive files to fully secure data in the event of a major catastrophe. Is it mandatory for such companies to maintain backup files off site?