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Microsoft outlines cloud ERP 'framework' for discrete manufacturers

But DIRA Framework is really nothing new- - and advocates say that’s the point.

Microsoft this week released an enterprise architecture framework that it claims discrete manufacturers can use to link shop-floor systems with cloud ERP and supply chain networks to bring real-time “manufacturing intelligence” to any device.

Yet software developers who joined the announcement and Microsoft’s own documentation show that the framework is simply new packaging for existing technology.

The initiative, called the Discrete Manufacturing Reference Architecture framework (DIRA Framework) describes best practices and building blocks for integrating Microsoft systems in manufacturing supply chains. Seven partners with a strong presence in factory automation, manufacturing execution system (MES) or product lifecycle management (PLM) software have signed on, including Apriso Corp., Parametric Technology Corp., Rockwell Automation Inc., and Siemens AG.

Analysts said the move builds on Microsoft’s dominance of shop-floor computing while helping it expand into cloud-based ERP and social networking on smart devices.

“We have been seeing somewhat slow adoption of the cloud in manufacturing,” said Joe Barkai, an analyst at IDC Manufacturing Insights, a research firm in Framingham, Mass. The DIRA Framework could reassure manufacturers that data security and bandwidth can be maintained on a platform that most have used for decades, according to Barkai. IDC has also noted a sharp increase in the number of manufacturers that are building their integration strategies around Microsoft’s SharePoint collaboration platform.

“The DIRA Framework appears to be a solid foundation for the next generation of plant-floor software for discrete manufacturers,” said Julie Fraser, an analyst at Boston-based Cambashi Inc. “Microsoft has been a leader in plant-floor software system standards and interoperability initiatives over many years. Our bet is that Microsoft and their ecosystem of partners will succeed.”

DIRA Framework: For reference only?

The framework identifies six “pillars” to guide development: natural user interfaces, role-based productivity and insights, social business, dynamic value networks, smart connected devices, and security-enhanced, scalable and adaptive infrastructure.

Participating partners portrayed the framework as a reaffirmation of their own Microsoft-centric development -- work they say has been going on for years. In addition to SharePoint, Microsoft's SQL Server database, BizTalk business process management (BPM) server and Silverlight browser plug-in play leading roles.

“It’s almost like Microsoft is wanting to leverage their partners to tell their story," said Melissa Topp, product marketing manager at ICONICS Inc., a maker of MES and visualization software for factory production and building systems in Foxborough, Mass. “None of this is new to us because we’re used to working with brand-new Microsoft technology before it ever hits the public. It’s relatively new to the discrete manufacturing industries because they tend to lag a little.”

Apriso has used its own Microsoft-based enterprise architecture to deliver DIRA-style BPM in its FlexNet MES for a decade, according to Jim Henderson, the company’s CEO. “Microsoft is just making it easier for us to use the piece parts. I don’t know that we’ll do anything differently. I think what we’ll be able to do is use more of the products in a much more defined fashion.”

Henderson nonetheless sees strong potential if the DIRA Framework takes off. “This is one of, if not the biggest software platform companies in the world telling the manufacturing world that they’re committed to building a worldwide architecture for manufacturing,” he said. “If I was a manufacturer, I’d feel pretty good about this.”

Other partners agreed with the analysts that Microsoft’s installed base in discrete manufacturing gives the initiative a decent start.

“Most IT departments have some of that framework already, which allows people who understand it to do very powerful things very easily,” said Gary Kohrt, vice president of marketing at ICONICS. “Microsoft has expanded that and is trying to create an awareness.”

Kohrt said that ICONICS has used the natural user interface features of Windows 7 in its software since 2008 to outfit shop-floor tablets with multi-touch controls similar to that of the Apple iPhone. SharePoint helps ICONICS integrate ERP and production systems and make the data that flows between them accessible according to each person’s role, he added.

“It allows us to process data into information across the enterprise, from the control room to office, to the home to the phone,” Kohrt said. “People will be operating their businesses from their phones and from their pads.”

Kohrt was less confident about the framework’s cloud computing features. “I personally doubt whether manufacturers will put their production systems in the cloud, but they might put peripheral information out there,” such as equipment data used by maintenance providers, he said.

Oracle and SAP have their own MES products and integration platforms. Microsoft’s well-heeled rivals in ERP and supply chain management software for manufacturers also have a major presence in the market the DIRA Framework is intended to address. They, along with Microsoft, were unable to provide comment after being contacted shortly after the announcement. But in its documentation, Microsoft said the DIRA Framework can accommodate SAP applications through Duet Enterprise, a SharePoint integration tool jointly developed by the two companies.

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