Designers and engineers across the world work together using a virtual model to quickly perfect a new design before putting it into production. Supply and distribution networks run smoothly as real-time insights enable the rapid repair of any broken links. Along the way, production equipment and materials are constantly monitored to make sure everything is running at optimal performance, while workers receive guided assistance through virtual reality headsets so they can get rapidly up to speed on new products. It may seem like an idealistic vision, but each of these capabilities is part of the agile manufacturing landscape that has emerged over recent years thanks to technologies like the cloud, artificial intelligence (AI) and the internet of things (IoT). And amid responses to the Covid-19 pandemic, they have become essential business enablers.
“In these unprecedented times, manufacturers face a three-fold challenge: navigate the now, plan the comeback and shape the new normal,” says Indranil Sircar, chief technology officer of Manufacturing Industry at Microsoft. “Critically, both manufacturing and supply chain are impacted.”
On the manufacturing side, Covid-19 very quickly presented companies with the challenge of rapidly refactoring production lines to produce, for instance, respirators instead of motor vehicles – and social distancing measures meant many had to do that using geographically dispersed teams. Microsoft partners including PTC and Ansys enabled them to do it. “PTC is enabling global design collaboration by bringing its Windchill and Creo design tools to Microsoft Azure,” says Neal Meldrum, worldwide business strategy manager of Manufacturing and Resources at Microsoft. “From a remote location you can iterate a design across multiple engineers and build virtual models – known as digital twins – to validate a design before committing to production. Another partner, Ansys, is enabling broader collaboration across the product lifecycle management ecosystem, accelerating designs while leveraging existing intellectual property.”
It’s not a new challenge for the industry – today’s rapidly changing markets and increasing demand for mass customisation had already made agility a business necessity after all. “We are seeing accelerated refactoring of lines supported by new systems of intelligence,” says Meldrum. “Agile production is addressing the need for mass customisation. AI is enabling autonomous operations, automated guided vehicles for material movement and drones for warehouse inspection. Meanwhile, deep reinforcement learning is optimising machine calibration and autonomous operations. Best practices are emerging for device connectivity, data contextualisation and cybersecurity that are accelerating enterprise transformation.”
But the pandemic has highlighted that agile manufacturing is an ecosystem that extends across the supply chain too. “Supply chains have come under the spotlight as key enablers of business resilience,” says Sircar. “Recent events have highlighted the need for greater flexibility to enable safe operation, as the closure of some suppliers to prevent the spread of the virus caused global supply chains to break down. Lockdown measures, as well as sharp shifts in market demand, have also brought short-term profit pressures and investment trade-offs that impeded supply chain resilience. It’s become clear that, to meet the supply and demand challenges manufacturers face, greater synchronisation and visibility is needed throughout the supply chain.”
Sircar highlights Microsoft’s partner Blue Yonder’s approach to help manufacturers build supply chain resilience. Its Luminate Control Tower solution, for instance, uses intelligent exception ranking, prioritisation and impact analysis to enable advanced orchestration, collaboration and machine learning (ML)-based resolution capabilities. “With capabilities like these in place, manufacturers can discover, interpret and act on real-time information from the entire digital ecosystem, including third-party data sources,” he says. “As a result, they can achieve a much more demand-responsive supply chain.”
Meanwhile, Sight Machine leverages AI and ML to help manufacturers address production equipment optimisation while enabling material and asset tracking capabilities which are essential to any supply chain.
“Leveraging platforms to build operational visibility, and then expanding that to broader supply chain visibility, is the starting point for building supply chain resilience,” says Meldrum. “In time, functional areas like integrated business planning and demand forecasting can be augmented with AI. IoT can enable feedback loops which impact all aspects of operations, from research and development to production to the service side of the business. This also enables visibility to Tier 1, Tier 2 and Tier 3 level suppliers and allows insight into customer sentiment.”
While technology is a tremendous enabler, it’s the people using it who build success. Workforce transformation is a central pillar of agile and resilient production, and an urgent priority for manufacturers grappling with remote working and social distancing measures to ensure safe operation in a pandemic situation. “Whether it’s leveraging business tools to drive higher levels of communication or mixed reality for training and guided work assist, there are many resources to enable workers to be more productive,” says Meldrum. “In the end it’s about looking at use cases that drive the highest impact to business value.”
EY’s scalable, cloud-based workforce transformation platform is a case in point. Developed in alliance with Microsoft, it can help manufacturers to unlock workforce productivity, accelerate organisational change, empower seamless virtual team collaboration and make the most efficient use of talent. “Using EY’s platform provides digital work instructions and a collaboration tool that upskills the existing workforce and improves worker health and safety,” says Meldrum.
Manufacturing is no stranger to digital transformation, but each organisation has its own needs and priorities. As the industry looks to the future, Microsoft’s holistic approach is designed to help each business optimise the value of its transformation and be ready for the challenges and opportunities ahead. “Our approach starts with digital advisory services which translate the voice of the customer into key business outcomes and aligns the technology portfolio and partner ecosystem to execute at scale,” says Meldrum. “Our investment in accelerating advanced modelling and simulation allows manufacturers to prototype assets, process and infrastructure to obtain key metrics before building the solution.”
We asked a selection of Microsoft partners to tell us how they are helping manufacturers to create new efficiencies, insights and opportunities across the product life cycle. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 109 of the digital edition of the Summer 2020 issue of The Record.
Klaus Peter Wagner, head of marketing and sales at Bosch Connected Devices and Solutions, says: “The XDK Shop Floor Starter Kit is a multitool for the factory of the future. It contains everything required to quickly equip interlinked production lines with different kinds of sensors, which could include measuring vibration, temperature and current.”
Melissa Topp, senior director of global marketing at ICONICS, says: “ICONICS provides customers with automation software solutions that are geared toward enhancing agility and speed as much as interoperability and scalability.”
This article was originally published in the Summer 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.
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