This is your copilot speaking

This is your copilot speaking

Manufacturers are investing in technology to retain workers and knowledge, use data more intelligently and improve productivity, according to Microsoft’s Alfonso Rodriguez 

Richard Humphreys |

The manufacturing industry is on the front foot. 

While the challenges within the sector have been widely reported. Supply chain issues, largely relating to the pandemic, geopolitical tensions and material shortages, are lingering. Attracting and retaining a quality workforce was highlighted as the primary challenge by manufacturing executives in a recent survey by the National Association of Manufacturers. And, earlier this year, Deloitte stated in its 2024 manufacturing industry outlook, that manufacturers are also expected to face economic uncertainty due to “the need for product innovation” to meet net-zero emissions goals and customer needs. 

But in the face of those issues, manufacturers are investing in technology, in particular artificial intelligence, to empower their workers and transform operations. 

Recent statistics from Deloitte’s 2024 manufacturing industry outlook reveal the level of this digital transformation, with over 70 per cent of surveyed manufacturers saying they have integrated technologies such as data analytics and cloud computing into their processes. Nearly half are now harnessing the power of internet of things sensors, devices and systems, and 76 per cent have adopted digital tools to gain enhanced transparency into their supply chain. 

“The market is undergoing a profound transformation, characterised by the rapid integration of advanced technologies and an increasing emphasis on data-driven decision-making,” says Alfonso Rodriguez, Microsoft’s director of product marketing for manufacturing. “This evolution is particularly pronounced as companies manage vast quantities of data from machines, sensors, enterprise systems and human interactions. However, the full potential of this data is often unrealised due to fragmentation and lack of interoperability, resulting in siloed information that hampers operational agility and innovation.” 

The Modernizing Industrial Software for the AI (R)Evolution report, published by ARC Advisory Group in April 2024, echoes this. The report notes that “most industrial organisations have consolidated their enterprise software such as enterprise resource planning, customer relationship management, product lifecycle management and supply chain management. For many, however, their factory and production software landscape remain a fragmented mess. This fragmentation results in data, process and productivity silos that are now barriers to the opportunities presented by the AI revolution.” 

Strategies that manufacturers can adopt to meet this challenge, all with data at their heart, include employing a smart factory approach, taking advantage of the opportunities the industrial metaverse brings and looking into the possibilities generative AI can offer. 

“The unification of operational technology (OT) and information technology data heralds many benefits, such as maximising the value of factory data, unlocking insights for production optimisation and fostering accelerated innovation,” says Rodriguez. “This unification streamlines the generation of insights, freeing resources for other strategic initiatives and is essential in contending with labour shortages, increasing production demands and the urgent need to reduce costs and carbon emissions.” 

AI manufacturing

This view on the importance of unifying data is shared by ARC’s report: “Data and process silos can hinder the efficiency and effectiveness of an organisation. By converging product roadmaps, vendors can ensure that their different software solutions work seamlessly together, providing a unified and streamlined experience for their customers. This not only enhances operational efficiency but also accelerates the digital transformation journey.” 

Microsoft and its partners are at the forefront of this evolution, offering manufacturing data solutions in Microsoft Fabric and an innovative copilot template for factory operations on Azure AI. These solutions are designed to consolidate IT and OT data on a secure and unified data platform, enriching it with semantic context and priming it for AI applications. 

“The copilot template for Azure AI is transforming factory operations by facilitating conversational data queries, streamlining communication and boosting team responsiveness,” says Rodriguez. “This innovation is pivotal in today’s market, where manufacturers must contend with labour shortages, increasing production demands and the urgent need to reduce costs and carbon emissions.” 

There is no shortage of innovation within the Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing partner ecosystem. These collaborations are crucial in collecting data from various systems, creating custom experiences that fit the specific needs of manufacturers, enabling customers to fully leverage their factory data as well as to drive digital transformation. 

Accenture and Avanade have developed the Avanade Manufacturing Copilot, which integrates with Fabric’s manufacturing data solutions, to boost innovation, operational efficiency and data-driven decision-making. Sight Machine’s Manufacturing Data Platform enhances Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing by optimising global production scheduling and providing a conversational querying experience. Litmus Edge’s advanced DataOps platform speeds up data extraction, normalisation and modelling, forming a hybrid edge-to-cloud infrastructure when combined with Fabric. And,  

AVEVA’s collaboration extends its Industrial AI Assistant, which unifies and contextualises production execution and supply chain planning data within Fabric. 

These investments represent a significant shift in the manufacturing landscape. This is reinforced by the findings of a 2023 Deloitte and Manufacturing Leadership Council industrial metaverse study, which details that executives anticipate an increase of more than 12 per cent in labour productivity because of industrial metaverse initiatives. 

“The potential impact of Microsoft’s manufacturing data solutions and the Copilot template for factory operations on Azure AI are extensive,” says Rodriguez. “The integration of IT and OT data from different sources into a secure platform breaks down data silos, giving manufacturers a holistic view of their operations that was previously hidden. This comprehensive perspective is crucial for a range of top use cases, including as-built versus as-designed analysis, root cause analysis, production efficiency insights, guided asset maintenance, worker skilling and waste reduction.” 

Microsoft’s Copilot in Dynamics 365 Guides is crucial for the preservation of knowledge. “It enables workers to have an interactive and innovative learning experience,” says Rodriguez. “It creates an engaging environment where workers interact with holograms and get AI-driven guidance, which speeds up the learning process and improves their problem-solving skills on the job. The tool’s integration with IoT sensors and service records offers important real-time data and historical insights, which makes the diagnostic process easier and avoids the need for manual documentation searches.” 

The preservation of knowledge is a key feature of Copilot, as it captures and uses expert knowledge from previous interactions to guide new workers, making sure that essential information is kept and shared effectively within the organisation. Copilot also makes documentation easier, letting workers use voice to work with the system, which speeds up service tasks and record updates and cuts down paperwork. 

“With Microsoft’s solutions, employees can access operational insights and advanced analytics that improve the employee experience,” says Rodriguez. “With the combination of IT and OT data, employees can use actionable insights to optimise production, which improves decision-making and increases productivity. The manufacturing data solutions offer faster analysis, which allows quicker access to contextualised data and reduces the time needed for complex tasks like root cause analysis from weeks to hours. 

“The use of conversational AI through Copilot templates on Azure AI enables employees to communicate with complex systems using natural language, which makes communication easier and more responsive. This not only makes the user experience easier but also creates a more agile and informed workforce.” 

“These solutions help to enable knowledge transfer, ensuring that insights and expertise are shared effectively across teams. This is especially important in ensuring continuity and retaining workers, especially when facing workforce attrition.”  

Partner perspectives 

We asked selected Microsoft partners how Microsoft’s suite of cloud-based tools is helping manufacturers to enrich the employee experience, drive productivity and meet customer expectations 

“Manufacturers can utilise Microsoft’s suite of cloud-based tools to enhance employee experiences, boost productivity and meet customer expectations,” says Hank Norris, Microsoft Strategic partnership director at Ansys. “Leveraging Ansys Access on Azure enables rapid deployment of simulations using cutting-edge high performance computing configurations, overcoming hardware barriers.”  

“With AvaTax for Dynamics 365 Business Central, manufacturers benefit from accounts payable functionality within their workflows,” says Eric Carrasco, senior product marketing manager at Avalara. “The AvaTax for Accounts Payable solution calculates accounts payable tax on purchase orders and purchase invoices, adjusts 

the amount charged by the vendor or the tax rate/percentage, reviews journal entries created with accounts payable tax accruals and post the entries to the general ledger.” 

“By integrating Microsoft’s cloud-based tools with MetaViewer’s cloud-based accounts payable automation, manufacturers automate invoice processing, reducing manual data entry and errors,” says Andy Birkey, marketing communications specialist at Metafile Information Systems. “This streamlines workflows, allowing employees to focus on higher-value tasks, thus boosting morale and efficiency.”   

“You are ready to improve productivity, customer satisfaction, employee safety and overall performance in your operations… but is your operational technology data accessible and ready?” says Will Knight, vice president of partnerships at Litmus. “With tight integration to Azure services, Litmus transforms plant floor data into an enterprise-wide strategic asset.” 

Read more from these partners in the Summer 2024 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription. 

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