Intelligent production for automotive supply chains

As supply chains become ever more complex, automotive manufacturers are making use of new cloud-based AI and mixed reality solutions for optimising their operations

Alex Smith
By Alex Smith on 13 November 2020
Intelligent production for automotive supply chains

Automotive manufacturers are known for their commitment to continuous improvement, and success at achieving it. However, they must navigate the challenges caused by a complex web of historically disconnected systems and processes. While now semi-connected,  there is not necessarily the level of transparency and immediacy that can really drive next-generation optimisation and performance.

One of the most valuable tools to help automotive companies face these challenges is the huge amount of valuable data they now have access to. Every machine, system, process and action creates data, all of which can be used to produce valuable insights if effectively analysed.

“The challenge is first to collect the data and then storing it coherently in a harmonised database, which can then be used to truly get into advanced data analytics,” says Darren Coil, director of business strategy for automotive supply chain, connected factory, and IoT automotive industries at Microsoft. “Once you do this, there is the potential to find some real gems of information. This expands exponentially when you gain access to similar data from suppliers feeding the inbound and outbound operations of a company. For example, if an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) knew the current work-in-progress, finished goods inventory and raw inventory positions, coupled with the suppliers capabilities, capacities and order commits, it could rapidly adjust its build plans to meet what is continually evolving on the customer demand side.”

Another important tool is artificial intelligence (AI), which can help optimise supply chains in a wide variety of ways. For example, AI enables the prediction of future demand for products by learning from patterns in previous demand and contextual data. These predictions can then be used by automotive manufacturers to optimise inventory across multiple locations to increase flexibility of service in preparation for that demand at a reduced cost, as well as determining when to invest in new equipment or infrastructure for maximum return. 

AI-powered solutions can help automotive manufacturers make more intelligent decisions and expand beyond the production of vehicles, according to Coil.

“New capabilities enabled by AI help automotive manufacturing companies become very nimble organisations that can not only produce a car, but also build new products outside of their current portfolio very quickly and cost effectively,” he says. “It can also help them experiment with optimised plant utilisations to balance build demands globally.”

Manufacturing organisations are also increasingly making use of mixed reality solutions to help design their products and factories. Designers can view products as life-size using mixed reality and work through the design collaboratively with others without having to spend time and money on building prototypes. At a larger scale, a factory layout can be visualised within an empty prefabricated building using virtual reality, allowing planners to see how all the machines, people and products fit together within the space. And once the machinery is installed, any necessary retooling can be performed by viewing a virtual replica called a digital twin through a tablet or headset and walking it from the dock to the floor, looking for any challenges that might arise in the move. 

There are also a number of helpful ways in which mixed reality can help to better train and deploy an organisation’s workforce. Microsoft Dynamics Remote Assist can enable organisations to overcome the need to have a specialist at every site, which has previously been an unavoidable cost. Instead, a specialist can be in a central location and remotely join a session with a qualified technician to walk through any necessary maintenance and repair. And by onboarding with an employee during tasks such as these, they can be taught new skills while also performing the operation at hand.

Rather than developing these solutions themselves, Microsoft is providing platforms that its partners can leverage to create efficiencies with their customers.

“We work closely with partners to keep them up-to-speed on the latest Azure, Dynamics, and Productivity tools and services,” says Coil. “This allows companies like Blue Yonder to build optimised supply chain tools for our customers, or Celonis to deploy into customer accounts and look for the ideal process steps.”

Another partner making use of Microsoft technology to drive efficiency in automotive supply chains is logistics platform provider C.H. Robinson. The Navisphere Vision platform is deployed entirely on Microsoft Azure and gives supply chain leaders visibility of their inventory at all points of its journey.

“Real time ETAs and the ability to see when there is any disruption that is going to cause delays, are critical capabilities in ensuring there is not excess days of inventory moving through the supply chain and you don’t have shortage of any part at any plant that could bring a line down,” said Chris Cutshaw, director of commercial and product strategy at TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson. “We help by integrating with suppliers and enterprise resource planning systems to understand what is being ordered, transported, and delivered, and then feed those updates to key stakeholders and necessary systems in real time.”

Following the outbreak of Covid-19, automotive manufacturers have been facing a whole new set of unexpected challenges. With fewer people physically working at a factory due to social distancing restrictions, they are having to find new ways to manage operations. More widely, changes to the frequency at which people use their vehicles may require a change in approach in the future.

“People are not using cars as much because of the work-from-home measures in place,” says Coil.  “For OEMs, this translates to a need to be nimbler to build the right number of vehicles. Microsoft comes into this challenge with the right tools in productivity and communication to enable remote workers to collaborate with factory workers. We are helping OEMs with data estate platforms and AI tools to help them better manage the new norms for demand from customers.” 

A digital foundation
As automotive manufacturers look to new technologies to help them manage increasingly complex supply chains, we asked PTC how it is partnering with Microsoft to drive efficiency and optimise operations across the industry. 

Stefan Bode, presales business transformation manager, says: “The partnership between PTC and Microsoft brings together PTC’s enterprise internet of things and augmented reality solutions to the automotive industry with the availability, security and scale of the Microsoft Azure cloud. Together, we’re able to help achieve real business impact of Industry 4.0 initiatives from connectivity to applications with unprecedented speed and scale, while also building a digital foundation for flexibility, agility and resilience for the future. Our approach drives efficiency across performance, assets and the workforce with proven, high-impact use cases. We can help achieve real-time views into production performance to help drive improvement in overall equipment efficiency and yield, understand asset performance to increase throughput, connect the silos in the shop-floor and empower workers with up-to-date work instructions and training for improved labour productivity. These are just a few of the outcomes we’ve helped our customers achieve, but these outcomes underscore our emphasis on delivering business impact.” 

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.

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