Driving the agile evolution of modern manufacturing

Driving the agile evolution of modern manufacturing

Microsoft’s Colin Masson discusses the role of the agile factory in shaping the industry’s future 

Elly Yates-Roberts |

Manufacturing has adapted to unprecedented disruption since the industry last met face-to-face at Hannover Messe in 2019.

During that time, companies already on their digital transformation journeys proved much better equipped to deal with the challenges than those that were further behind. As a result, manufacturers across the industry have accelerated their investment in enabling agile factories, supporting hybrid teams, delivering always-on services and building resilient supply chains – all while improving sustainability. Microsoft is bringing together the tools and expertise to help them reach those goals.  

“All the capabilities manufacturers need exist today across Microsoft and our partner ecosystem,” says Colin Masson, global industry marketing director of manufacturing at Microsoft. “With Cloud for Manufacturing we’re bringing those resources together to eliminate any seams between the technologies and accelerate the deployment of targeted solutions.” 

This convergence of transformation resources is timely, as recent events have highlighted that agile manufacturing extends across shop floors, supply chains, customers’ premises and even into employees’ homes. For instance, according to research from the latest Microsoft Work Trend Index, about half of the industry’s frontline workers say labour shortages and supply chain disruptions make it difficult to do their jobs. But many also think that new technologies bring opportunities for the industry and that advanced tools could reduce on-the-job stress.  

“Manufacturers have had to keep up with changing markets while navigating supply chain disruption,” says Masson. “Factories are now making things they didn’t make before, or they’ve have had to adapt their processes because they couldn’t get certain parts or raw materials – and they need to keep the shop floor up to speed with the latest bill of materials and work instructions. At the same time, manufacturers already faced the challenge of bridging the skills gap, and they’ve had to find more creative ways to support frontline workers on the factory floor. Above all, they need to ensure workers’ safety, connect on-site staff with remote expertise and supervision, and rapidly deploy new tools that can augment workforce skills. All of this has intensified the human lens on agile factory investments. Alongside industrial internet of things, human-machine interface and manufacturing execution system technology, manufacturers are also investing in low-code/no-code solutions such as Microsoft Power Platform – including PowerApps and Power BI – to quickly connect different applications.” 

That need for connectivity also extends to sales and services, says Masson. “Manufacturers are increasingly having to sell and provide complex service packages remotely. To enable that, we’ve tightly integrated mixed reality and Teams into our service and sales solutions so representatives can show the customer the product or run the configurator with them. Today, these capabilities are more critical to agile manufacturing than ever.” 

Those transformations are happening today. Mitsubishi Electric, for instance, is using Microsoft cloud capabilities to support new ways of working that transcend organisational boundaries and physical distances. It adopted Microsoft 365 to build the Mitsubishi Electric Global IT Platform Service for employees working in offices, at customer sites and on production floors around the world. As well as streamlining communications with email and document sharing services, the company adopted Yammer for open information sharing and Teams for chat and videoconferencing – a solution that employees readily accepted because of its quality of communication and ease of use. In addition, HoloLens provides a mixed reality environment for collaborating and sharing expertise on the frontline.  

Meanwhile, manufacturer Eaton is using Microsoft Dynamics 365 Remote Assist and Dynamics 365 Guides on HoloLens 2 across its vehicle group plants worldwide. It’s enabled collaborative problem-solving, enhanced employee training and onboarding using simulated environments, and remote audits and inspections whenever they’re needed. As well as minimising downtime, Eaton has also accelerated product development. 

Fast, connected responses are crucial to the always-on service models that keep manufacturing firms, and the businesses that depend on their equipment, up and running. For example, industrial equipment provider Komatsu Industries, a subsidiary of construction machinery manufacturer Komatsu, created a predictive maintenance system that uses Azure AI, Azure Machine Learning and Microsoft Power BI to streamline maintenance work, identify worn parts and calculate when they’ll need replacing. In addition, the system has enabled it to provide innovative solutions to customers. 

Running through all these efforts is an intense awareness of the agile factory’s role in the supply chains it depends on, and those that depend on it. Microsoft’s focus on this role can be seen in the supply chain solution experts it’s bringing together in Cloud for Manufacturing, and in its own investment to solve one of the industry’s biggest headaches.  

“Our manufacturing customers really need end-to-end supply chain visibility,” says Masson. “They need early warnings of potential supplier issues so they can look for alternative sources, and accurate predictions of spikes in demand so they can satisfy the market. We’ve developed Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Insights (currently in preview) to answer that need. It provides a control tower, along with the ability to create digital twins of the entire supply chain.” 

In fact, Masson points out, supply chain decisions about where to site factories, who to source from and which markets to serve are instrumental in building both resilience and sustainability. Augmenting Cloud for Manufacturing capabilities with those of the Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability can help manufacturers to target both goals with pinpoint accuracy. 

Ultimately, Cloud for Manufacturing is intended to simplify and accelerate manufacturers’ transformation journeys. At its heart is Microsoft’s dedication to open standards, which enables consistency across that journey, however small the steps are.  

“It’s vital that we align with prevalent standards to ensure interoperability as we develop connectors and data models for the Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing,” says Masson. “This supports any organisations that may need to deploy capabilities incrementally – for instance, by adding low-cost sensors to their most critical machines as a first step, then starting to build intelligence on top of those. Open standards ensure that companies can still connect those machines and get a single view across the system as they make further investments in the future.”  

Partner perspectives 
We asked selected Microsoft partners about the technologies and solutions that are helping manufacturers to navigate disruption and keep up with changing markets. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 106 of the digital edition of the Spring 2022 issue of Technology Record.   

Sree Hameed, consumer products industry strategist at AVEVA, said: “AVEVA’s Discrete Lean Management software has improved labour productivity at Schneider Electric, with AVEVA Insight further shrinking unplanned downtime by nearly six per cent.” 

Anoop Sanduja, senior technical manager of Microsoft practice at Grazitti Interactive, said: “At Grazitti, we have seen the industry focus on the adoption of cloud infrastructure with enterprise Microsoft products including Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 among others.” 

Maria Wilson, global leader of digital growth at Howden, said: “Howden is building a suite of solutions that enable the collection, transformation and linking of asset data and original equipment manufacturer expertise into an analytics-based service for process-critical assets that supports our customers with actionable insights into a more efficient and sustainable operation of their vital assets.” 

Paul Keely, chief cloud officer at Open Systems, said: “Open Systems MDR+ service integrates with Microsoft security tools for simpler coordination with IT and secure configuration of critical Microsoft infrastructure, increasing manufacturers’ security maturity now and in the future.” 

Xavier Mesrobian, vice president sales and marketing at Skkynet Cloud Systems, said: “Building agility and sustainability in the industrial sector requires artificial intelligence and secure access to data to optimise production efficiency. Our Skkynet DataHub service for Microsoft Azure provides this kind of secure, remote access to the plant in real time.” 

Andy Byers, strategic partnerships director at Ansys, said: “Ansys technologies running on Microsoft Azure empower our customers to rapidly run more design iterations on the cloud to enhance the fabrication processes, reduce project risks and speed supply chain negotiations.” 

Puneet Saxena, corporate vice president of global manufacturing at Blue Yonder, said: “Blue Yonder’s AI/ML-based solutions, built on Microsoft Azure, allow manufacturing firms to identify disruptions faster, while automating decision-making resulting in a more profitable and sustainable supply chain.” 

Natalie Bell, business development director at Akari Solutions, said: “Our solutions are designed to be accessible for all, so every individual can contribute to their organisation’s performance whilst maximising their Microsoft investment.” 

Santosh Nori, go-to-market and marketing lead at Infosys, said: “For a US-based electric vehicle manufacturer, we redesigned and unified finance and supply chain processes through ERP-in-a-box, a dynamic, agile and scalable enterprise resource planning solution that ensured rapid implementation of Dynamics 365 in under 10 weeks.” 

Robert Andres, chief strategy officer at Eurotech, said: “The Eurotech and Microsoft partnership helps to accelerate and simplify the digitisation of assets: the two companies develop edge and cloud computing solutions that help organisations to reduce deployment time and efforts and allow them to effectively transfer data across the enterprise operational technology and information technology domains.” 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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