I was given the honor of appearing in a Roundtable on June 24 at the Microsoft Manufacturing Summit and one of the main topics we discussed was the impact of COVID-19 on the manufacturing sector. In one regard, the impact is beyond obvious. This online summit was a replacement for Hannover Messe, which was canceled, like most events, due to COVID. In all of our customers, spanning five continents, COVID has forced them to rethink how they run their operations.
In fact, 94% of Fortune 500 companies have observed disruptions due to the COVID challenge. Supply chains were disrupted and stressed as previously abundant materials became scarce and delivery timetables were stretched out. Manufacturers were forced to rethink the motions and placements of workers on their shop floors to enforce social distancing. Operational managers had to learn how to work from home and remotely monitor and manage their plants. All of these rapid changes have made it far more difficult to make good decisions around production capacity and planning.
COVID Is A Challenge And Opportunity
With all these challenges plants need to ramp back up as a new normal is being established. They must do this while ensuring safety and health of their people. Often, this means building or exposing digital manufacturing capabilities that can not only improve resiliency but also create competitive advantages. For example, if a process engineer had the ability to monitor and troubleshoot shop floor issues remotely then that could enable manufacturers to centralize process engineering efforts which could be a competitive advantage.
A critical element of successfully being able to achieve a stable, more agile and resilient production environment is having the ability to remotely manage factory operations. We are helping our customers go through this journey of making remote manufacturing operations a reality. Sight Machine – optimized on Azure – offers manufacturers the cloud powered, data-driven insights required to efficiently and effectively manage plant operations and production processes anytime, anywhere.
With Azure and a broad array of IoT options, Microsoft is dedicating significant time and resources to building out end-to-end capabilities for remote monitoring. The goal is to provide broad transparency from upstream suppliers of raw materials to transportation optimization to downstream management of quality issues. Sight Machine provides the piece in the middle – a clear and clean representation of data and context for all relevant production processes from inside the “black box” of the shop floor.
We do this with the industry’s only standard data model – integrating all forms of production data – and real time streaming solution that provides system-level visibility across the entire production process. This allows our customers to make better operational decisions – faster – and accelerate productivity improvements.
COVID Is Changing Manufacturing Culture
With COVID, plant managers and operational executives now recognize that onboarding and making their workers at all levels more comfortable with modern data tools is imperative to resiliency. As Microsoft VP of Manufacturing Çağlayan Arkan discussed in his keynote at the event, ubiquitous collaboration technology will accelerate the adoption of newer manufacturing technologies and drive end-to-end digitization. Çağlayan even envisions the equivalent of IT service desks for operational technology, with experts in process engineering and continuous improvement and quality assurance all leveraging digital tools to extend their capabilities and both train and support plant personnel and plant managers.
To that end, we are seeing dramatic usage of the Sight Machine platform increase significantly since the Covid-19 challenge started. The usage spike is for remote monitoring and for management teams and others that don’t need to touch a machine. But the usage spike is also for teams and operators that must be on the shop floor and simply want to understand what is happening and is driven by management wanting to accelerate digital transformation efforts and onboarding to new tools. Some examples of changes we have seen include the following:
Large multi-plant aluminum can manufacturer trains machine operators on data-driven continuous improvement: Managers at a large multi-plant can and food packaging manufacturer are remotely monitoring performance of their plants and training shop floor workers to analyze their machine data in real time. This will empower them to initiate remote problem solving and decrease time to resolution.
A multi-national plastic packaging company runs a remote hackathon with Sight Machine data: A group of engineers, plant supervisors used Sight Machine data analysis capability to run a remote hackathon. They found that remote collaboration was impactful if they have access to real-time system-wide data from the shop floor to accelerate the innovation process, which till now was lacking in manufacturing.
COVID Has Made The Digital Factory Of The Future A Top Priority
What we see in our discussions across packaging, paper, chemicals, automotive, glass, high-tech, pharma and other realms of manufacturing is that leadership recognizes the burning need to mitigate pandemic and other global interruption risks, but also grasp the opportunity. Leading manufacturers are not just planning to get through the current situation. They’re also thinking about how to become more agile and better prepared for the demands of tomorrow. Digitization is going to play a significant role in this. Remote manufacturing operations is no longer an option. It is now mission critical. Manufacturers are investing time and resources to build their ability to not just remotely monitor their plants, but also carry out a number of indirect production operations remotely.
We’re seeing a shift in philosophy and strategy as we – together with Microsoft – help our customers reimagine manufacturing. Some plant functions that manufacturers assumed needed to be co-located with the production line have already started moving towards remote. For example, production scheduling, process engineering, maintenance coordination has already become remote and will likely never go back to fully co-located as manufacturers build their ability to access shop floor data in real time remotely, and convert this into actionable insights.
The biggest benefit from this drive is that it enforces a strict data-first approach to decision making. If you can’t see the floor and walk the line, you have to trust the data. In the immediate short term, manufacturers are re-imagining their manufacturing operations. The idea of a shared services center that has existed for long existed across various business functions will become reality to manufacturing operations too. Manufacturing companies will start planning co-location of process engineers, maintenance coordinators, production schedulers, utilities coordinators and data scientists at central locations to support multiple plants. The availability of technologies such as Sight Machine and the other components of Microsoft’s Factory of the Future solution and partner ecosystem, are making this vision a reality.