People-powering the digital workplace

Microsoft and its partners are helping to transform the manufacturing industry by putting people firmly at the centre

Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths on 27 April 2020
People-powering the digital workplace

When Honeywell International saw that its customers faced a decrease in the availability of skilled staff to maintain complex equipment, it used Microsoft Azure and HoloLens to create a scalable, affordable solution. The result was Honeywell Connected Plant Skills and Safety Immersive Competency, an immersive industrial learning solution that plays to how humans best learn, enabling fast and efficient training for new workers.

As well as being inexpensive, this cloud-delivered training provides an engaging and attractive experience for new generations of workers. Wearing a HoloLens headset, trainees can move through a physical space safely while working with a virtual 3D simulation model. Staff can also take training and refresher courses as and when they need to, without having to travel. 

Honeywell’s solution exemplifies how Microsoft and its partners can help equip people to work safely and expertly in an industry that leads the way in adopting new technologies. “Manufacturing has long been on the front line of technology disruption,” says Colin Masson, global industry director, manufacturing solutions at Microsoft Cloud and Enterprise. “This industry is constantly creating new jobs, global supply chains, business processes and even new economies, and the pace of change is accelerating.”

Empowering people with the skills to harness that technology is another matter. “Manufacturers face a growing talent gap as an ageing workforce begins to retire, taking its knowledge and experience with it,” says Masson. “At the same time, the younger generation of workers isn’t attracted to manufacturing as a career. In addition, a skills gap has emerged among the existing workforce as rapid adoption of advanced technologies on the plant floor is often not met with a corresponding level of skills development or training.”

It’s imperative that manufacturers equip themselves to attract tech-savvy talent while upskilling and reskilling existing staff to succeed in the digital workplace. “Manufacturers need to build a culture of transformation that is ready to continuously develop and innovate, so the entire organisation can fall into step with new and disruptive technologies, now and in the future,” says Masson. “Those that do will be able to quickly adapt to – and even drive – market changes.” 

Far from automating people out of their jobs, technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation (RPA) are ushering in a new era of collaboration between people and technology. For example, Microsoft’s Future Computed study found that much of the AI technology being built is intended to increase productivity and collaboration and enable better and faster decision-making for workers. And while the evolution of machines and algorithms in the workplace could displace 75 million jobs by 2022, the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report suggests it could also create 133 million new roles. “AI is poised to open up new types of employment opportunities, and senior executives from leading global companies see it greatly contributing to their ability to attract top talent as well as boost output per worker,” says Masson.

In the energy industry, for instance, an alliance between Microsoft, Baker Hughes and C3.ai is bringing scalable AI solutions on Azure to help companies accelerate their transformation. Applications will address industry-­specific challenges across the value chain such as inventory optimisation, energy management, predictive maintenance and process and equipment reliability.

Masson also points to Microsoft cloud tools like Teams, Office 365 or Remote Assist, which support a ‘digital worker’ vision to increase productivity and enable employees to work from anywhere at any time. “Using technologies like Skype, Skype Translator and HoloLens, experienced workers can be readily available to anyone around the global enterprise, offering verbal, or even visual help,” he says. “These capabilities can help us keep our older workers on the job longer by leveraging their intelligence, knowledge, expertise and experience through less physically demanding – yet vital – roles.”

German car parts manufacturer ZF Group is using Microsoft Remote Assist and Microsoft Layout to increase efficiencies on the shop floor. HoloLens and Remote Assist enable maintenance engineers to fix equipment faster with the help of remote experts, decreasing factory floor downtime. Planning engineers use HoloLens and Microsoft Layout to view spatial planning designs in the real-world shop floor environment, saving hours of work. 

Ultimately, every manufacturing company transforming through new technology is creating a unique path that will be trodden by its people. Ensuring they have the skills to adapt to the digital workplace will be the key to future growth and competitive success.

“Digital technology is changing every aspect of manufacturing and providing the catalyst for new business models, products, services and experiences,” says Masson. “But people are at the heart of successful digital transformation, and the most successful manufacturers will be those that transform and empower a changing workforce with the skills they need to thrive in the digital economy.” 

This article was originally published in the Spring 2020 issue of The Record. Subscribe for FREE here to get the next issues delivered directly to your inbox.

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