Analysing a huge amount of data and breaking them down into easy-to-understand visuals can help manufacturers make correct decisions quickly. By Joson Ng
Data used to mean endless stacks of papers. It used to be easy to picture them and most people know what they are in the physical sense. Data in the digital age is far more of an abstract entity. I picture matrices — random numbers that do not mean anything to some but are highly important to others. The key here is making sense of data (how we analyse them) and making use of data (how we leverage the power of data to improve our businesses).
In today’s business and manufacturing world, transforming raw data into meaningful and useful information for the purpose of business analysis is crucial and this by default makes it a big business. This is particularly true as we enter the age of big data and an ever competitive manufacturing environment.
“Information is the one thing that CIOs increasingly need to be content with. They are under pressure from CEOs to make better decisions out of the assets (data) they already have,” said David Telford, senior director, manufacturing & service (industries group lead), Qlik.
He gave an example where using data in an intelligent manner can allow people to make sound decisions and cost savings. “Manufacturers traditionally manage many different kinds of physical flow of materials. A lot of time they use ERP (system). Using the data available, better decisions can be made with regard to material flow.”
According to him, some users can avoid moving materials across borders unnecessarily if they interpret the data available intelligently.
The manufacturing space has evolved tremendously. While innovations can be breath-taking at times, the business aspect of manufacturing can be very unforgiving and demanding.
“The global manufacturing industry needs to be more agile and manage cost and efficiency better, at the same time, face increasing level of competition and cost pressure,” said Mr Telford.
These challenges, combined with the necessity to understand customers better and get to markets quicker while reducing obsolescence has made many business owners revisit the notion of business intelligence. After all, according to Mr Telford, the ability to analyse data and make timely decisions based on that is what gives companies a competitive advantage.
Dusting Out The Cobwebs
Since the 1990s, many companies have migrated certain business or manufacturing functions into ERP systems or various other business management suites to collect, store, manage and interpret data from various business activities like inventory management and shipping & payment. It is fair to say they have amassed a huge amount of data and there is growing pressure to tap into these data to gain a competitive edge.
Instead of archiving the data in the inner reaches of the server and make little use of it, some companies have turned to self-service business intelligence tools that allow data visualisation and collaboration, helping such business intelligence suites gain a reasonable market share in recent years.
“Traditional business intelligence is more report-centric. Reports are defined by IT and users are served static reports. In today’s context, users increasingly need more flexibility and the ability to interrogate data and expect answers,” said Mr Telford. This trend has given rise to associative features in business intelligence software programs.
What that means is a user can take data from multiple sources, combine them in memory and link them around a common attribute, which incidentally is the basis for building applications in QlikView, a business intelligence software developed by Qlik.
These apps allow users to look at cell performance and see which product performed well and the associative factors around that particular performance. This can be likened to going back to the IT department and asking them for a new report in the static reporting environment.
In terms of building apps, users can pull data from any source (eg: ERP). The program allows the use of structured, unstructured, internal and external data. The company also has consultants to help users build their unique applications.
Typical use of the app includes S&OP process. Mr Telford added that the product provides a collaborative platform that allows users to share information even if the party is not a license holder.
Know What You Are Doing
Although such self-service business intelligence tools are powerful platforms for businesses, Mr Telford cautioned that users need to know what they are doing with it.
“Some early customers, they try to boil the ocean. They were trying to measure the entire process from engineering concept to customers’ return, trying to get everything into a single app. It is important you construct an app that is consumerable and breaks processes into logical steps,” he said. At the end of the day, the message here is to eliminate risks by careful design and proper understanding of what the user is trying to manage.
Business Intelligence For SMEs
Words like ‘big data’ and ‘business intelligence’ may put SMEs off but according to Mr Telford, his applications are suitable for SMEs and contract manufacturers in Southeast Asia to help them digest big data into something manageable.
“QlikView is deployed by organisations of all sizes so in our initial growth as a company, it was driven by mid-markets and small businesses. The kind of challenges SMEs face in terms of managing brands, customers, production processes, and operations tend to be identical to an organisation 20 times their size,” he said.
Despite the suitability of the product for SMEs, it is not to say that the company had it easy at the start.
“In Europe initially, we put in quite a significant effort to help the market learn the difference between the two approaches (business discovery or data discovery) to business intelligence,” he said. For Asia however, he felt that things will go smoother.
“My take on Asia is everything is rapidly accelerated as it is a much more dynamic and responsive market place,” he said. He revealed that in Asia, the company is “doing well” in India, particularly in its automotive sector.
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