Manufacturers face a dual challenge today: swiftly navigate the disruptions caused by Covid-19 while enabling a resilient and sustainable future. In both cases, digital transformation holds the key.
“In the short term, worker safety and maintaining operations to ride out the current economic downturn are manufacturers’ primary concerns,” says Indranil Sircar, Microsoft’s chief technology officer for manufacturing. “They have the opportunity to accelerate existing investments in digital transformation to respond to the need for remote work, social distancing and maintaining operations.
“Longer term, the question is how can manufacturers innovate to create sustainable operations that are resilient to unpredictable future events – whether they are political, natural disasters, pandemics or any number of other possibilities. In this regard, manufacturers are reimagining how they will transform their operations to create a resilient and sustainable future by creating safer and more agile factories and resilient supply chains, unlocking innovation of sustainable products and services, and engaging customers and the workforce in new ways.”
Microsoft and its partners are uniquely positioned to help them meet those goals. “With Microsoft, manufacturers get a world-class partner and ecosystem with the modern productivity platform they need, the global reach to be where they are, and the security to help protect their intellectual property assets, operations and data,” says Sircar. “By uniting productivity, intelligent cloud, intelligent edge, artificial intelligence (AI) and big data platforms and tools to solve business problems, we help the industry innovate fast, and achieve better customer and social outcomes.”
Covid-19 made the value of that position clear. As the pandemic challenged companies to reconfigure supply chains, rethink the shop floor and ensure worker safety, Microsoft brought the solutions. As soon as the crisis hit, for instance, the company made Microsoft Teams available to everyone to enable remote work and support safe and sustainable productivity increases. And as teams return to the workplace, customisable pre-built solutions like Microsoft Power Platform, internet of things solutions built on Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams are helping companies to monitor, assess and manage procedures to protect and empower them.
Meanwhile AI technologies like robotic process automation (RPA) and digital twins – virtual models of real-life systems – hold the key to helping manufacturers build agility and resilience for the future. “AI for decision support is a key enabler of RPA, which is gaining renewed interest as manufacturers are looking at ways to reduce costs and keep workers safe,” says Sircar.
For instance, building an end-to-end digital production platform on Azure, based on a single source of data, has enabled sustainable stainless steel manufacturer Outokumpu to increase output by 10-15 per cent at one of its sites. Predictive technology also helped the company to reduce quality defects by up to 40 per cent – all while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
Digital twins, meanwhile, are capturing the industry’s attention by enabling companies to test ideas and run ‘what-if’ scenarios – so they can respond quickly to sudden disruption and create innovative, sustainable business models. Bosch Building Technologies, a division of Bosch Group, is one company showing what can be achieved with the technology. It deployed Azure digital twins as it expanded the capabilities of an Azure-based platform it developed to analyse and improve energy efficiency. This enables Bosch and its customers to build contextually aware solutions and create digital representations of assets, environments and business systems, so they can apply forecasts and predictive insights to make faster, more informed decisions for improving their buildings’ performance and carbon footprints.
“Digital twins allow manufacturers to be more agile, whether they are creating a twin to model how to reconfigure their shop floor to enable social distancing, a manufacturing process simulation model powered by AI, or other twins to model the relationship and interactions between people, places devices and more,” says Sircar.
While these technologies are great enablers, Microsoft recognises that successful transformation depends on the people using them. Its commitment to support manufacturers includes a series of freely available expert guides to help develop the skills and culture they need, such as how to quickly streamline operations, adapt processes and build new workflows using low-code tools; how to enable an agile supply chain with the end-to-end operational visibility to adapt quickly to disruptions; and the best ways to boost employee productivity by empowering collaboration and remote teamwork.
Nor has the company let restrictions like social distancing stand in the way of offering support. “In June, we hosted our inaugural digital manufacturing summit which provided an opportunity to come together, learn, grow and share,” says Sircar. “We discussed how digital transformation priorities need to adapt in these challenging times to navigate the global reality as it is now, and to reimagine the new normal for intelligent manufacturing. We’re publishing the keynote sessions from the event online, and we’ll be making some of the customer and partner roundtables available on-demand in September.”
Ultimately, says Sircar, supporting a sustainable future is a collective effort involving people, technology and the expertise that combines them to create true transformation. “Microsoft and our hundreds of thousands of partners are lighting up solutions for a diverse range of manufacturing customers to eliminate waste and engineer better outcomes for all of their stakeholders,” he says. “Together, we’re enabling them to design for sustainability throughout the end-to-end value chain and lifecycle of their products and services.”
Manufacturers are harnessing digital technology to build new value in the post-Covid-19 marketplace. We asked selected Microsoft partners how they are enabling manufacturing firms to innovate for sustainable success in an uncertain world. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 143 of the digital edition of the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record.
Nicholas Leeder, vice president, digital transformation solutions at PTC, says: “PTC is helping to address shifting needs by accelerating the time to value for digital transformation initiatives.”
Klaus Peter Wagner, head of sales and marketing at Bosch Connected Devices and Solutions, says: “The reliability of logistics chains is strongly affected by local lockdowns and unforeseeable delays that might cause damage to the products. This has led to a completely new meaning for internet of things-based logistics tracking products.”
Shawn Namdar, solutions engineer at BNBuilders, says: “At BNBuilders we are leveraging Nintex Workflow Cloud for rapid prototyping and development which has enabled our IT infrastructure to pivot in real time to support the ongoing business challenges of operating throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Sanjay Jhawar, president and co-founder at RealWear, says: “Deploying Microsoft Teams on our hands-free HMT-1 and HMT-1Z1 wearable computers puts eyes in the factory, despite continued travel restrictions.”
Dirck Schou, CEO of Taqtile, says: “With Manifest, experts can very easily and intuitively author step-by-step processes, in effect capturing their knowledge for use in any operational or training capacity in their facility.”
Mike Rogers, director of private sector sales and marketing at Formpipe, says: “Thanks to our vast experience, we pinpointed sector-specific limitations within Dynamics 365 and use the power of Lasernet to overcome them.”
Melissa Topp, senior director of global marketing at ICONICS, says: “ICONICS’ new CFSWorX was designed to streamline the efficiency of field service organisations through intelligent scheduling and reliable notifications.”
Ravi Gopinath, Chief cloud officer and chief product officer at AVEVA, says: “AVEVA’s portfolio…enables manufacturers to deploy faster, reduce energy consumption, cut emissions and share collaborative innovation, boosting sustainable outcomes for all.”
This article was originally published in the Autumn 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.