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What is Intelligent Manufacturing, and How Can It Help Discrete Manufacturers Navigate the Changing Landscape?

There’s no argument that these are challenging times for discrete manufacturers. The pandemic has brought with it a complex set of challenges, and manufacturers are facing a growing skills gap for workers, among other issues. With problems ranging from erratic supply-chain disruptions to employee shortages, charting a steady course can be harder than ever. Manufacturers need all the visibility, intelligent manufacturing processes and visibility to navigate in this business climate.

Fortunately, smart new manufacturing technologies provide exactly that: by bringing together artificial intelligence, connected devices and cloud-based analytics, they cut through uncertainty and provide a clear path forward.

The future of manufacturing demands that manufacturers successfully adapt operations and strategies to become smarter, better connected and more agile. This requires vision, diligence and the curiosity to explore and embrace the transformative new technologies that are part of the Intelligent Manufacturing revolution.

What Is Intelligent Manufacturing?

Let's start by defining some key concepts. Intelligent Manufacturing is linked to the idea of the fourth industrial revolution (aka Industry 4.0).

The key Industry 4.0 components that make Intelligent Manufacturing possible are artificial intelligence, machine learning, the Internet of Things (IoT) and the cloud. Essentially, Intelligent Manufacturing is defined by real-time communication between connected devices using embedded sensors and cloud-based software, coupled with machine learning and powerful data analytics, creating a more sophisticated level of visibility and flexibility.

Ultimately, Intelligent Manufacturing is about a lot of little pieces that fit together to create a much greater (and smarter) whole. Together, these tools make it possible for manufacturers to operate in a way that's proactive rather than reactive, and spend more time looking ahead.

Visibility Builds Agility: How IoT Insights in the Present Help You Navigate the Future

Supply chain disruptions caused by the pandemic are not the only issues that put pressure on discrete manufacturers. Products are increasingly complex, with more variations and increasingly shorter lifecycles. Consumers demand endless variety and options, while also insisting on instant availability and quick delivery. Intelligent manufacturing plays a key role is simplifying these processes.

Caught in the middle, discrete manufacturers have to steer between being overstocked and not being able to meet demand. Fortunately, better data integration and predictive intelligence can help provide the agility to find — and successfully navigate — between those two extremes.

Microsoft Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management, for example, offers visibility into your supply chain from beginning to end. You’ll have visibility into the production line, as well as the transportation of products and materials — and much more. This system allows you to create an intelligent manufacturing process and an adaptable supply chain by monitoring and managing this data from one centralized location, giving you the eagle-eye view you need to achieve better speed and flexibility, and fine-tuning operations.

Intelligence in Action: The Smart Warehouse, Predictive Maintenance and Digital Twins

Here's a quick look at a few of the most exciting manifestations of Industry 4.0 technologies — all of which draw on the convergence of smart, connected devices and data.

The Smart Warehouse: Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management lets you apply IoT technology and machine learning to transform your conventional warehouse into a smart one by employing intelligent manufacturing. As connected devices and assets share data via the cloud, machine learning and analytics make it possible to adapt and improve processes for better efficiency, enhance performance, and even forecast and address problems before they arise. By digitizing your supplychain, you’ll be able to predict disruptions and respond faster, enhancing visibility, improving planning and maximizing asset productivity.

For example, one sportswear clothing company found their Microsoft cloud investment is making a positive impact on business performance through greater staffing efficiency, faster and more flexible customer service, and increased inventory awareness. They plan to gain greater insight into consumer activities and preferences through Dynamics 365 Connected Store and deliver even more value to loyal customers and add to intelligent manufacturing processes with Dynamics 365 Customer Insights.

Predictive Maintenance: The goal of a predictive maintenance strategy is to extend the useful service life of equipment and prevent failures. However, scheduled maintenance sometimes arrives too late, a situation that can be wasteful and inefficient. IoT-enabled devices coupled with predictive analytics makes it possible to identify patterns, detect anomalies, and get advance warnings about impending equipment problems before they occur, to prevent breakdowns. An anomaly detection solution like Microsoft Azure AI provides real-time performance and usage data, allowing you to schedule service more efficiently, avoid unplanned downtime, and better manage spare parts inventory.

For example: An elevator manufacturer has been using the predictive maintenance capabilities of Microsoft’s Azure suite, which allows their service technicians to identify problems. Combined with a “mixed reality” device, technicians can use the industrial IoT tools to work hands-free while on the job, and make remote calls to more experienced technicians who can walk them through solutions – and provide them with valuable onsite education.

Digital Twins: The technology behind digital twins is sophisticated, but the idea is simple: creating a virtual replica of a product, asset or property that serves as its digital counterpart to help optimize the original. NASA helped pioneer this process to create better model simulations of spacecraft.

Once a digital twin is established, a valuable flow of data connects the original with its digital version: The insights gained are applied to continually improve the physical counterpart, while data from the real-world twin is used to continually refine the virtual counterpart. The result is a continuous loop of communication and optimization that helps you drive better products, optimize operations and costs, and create breakthrough customer experiences.

For example: An aviation company combines disparate data streams to create a digital replica of an aircraft. By making Microsoft Azure Digital Twins and other Azure resources the center points for ingesting and modeling data from multiple sources, the aviation company creates a living ecosystem of data to build a flexible digital model of any aircraft and analyze its health, efficiency, and complete history, including all its individual components. That will help their customers drive greater fuel efficiency, reduce maintenance costs, and boost the flight-readiness of their fleets

Want to know more? Check out Microsoft's Azure Digital Twins product, which is available as part of its suite of Azure offerings.

How Intelligent Manufacturing Delivers the Goods

The many and varied benefits Intelligent Manufacturing can help materialize include:

  • Speedier product development: Self-improvement isn't just for humans anymore: Smart, connected products (and their digital twins) can provide the data and insights necessary to improve their own future iterations.
  • Optimized supply chain: Better visibility and connectivity are the keys to a more resilient, disruption-proof supply chain.
  • Reduced operational costs: The insights that come from intelligent manufacturing analytics and better real-time data allow you to streamline processes, eliminate wasted time and effort, and deploy resources more efficiently in ways that can add up to significant cost savings.
  • Improved safety: Smarter robotics technology means that dangerous tasks previously performed directly by humans can be delegated to autonomous or remotely operated devices and equipment. And in the age of social distancing, the ability to perform more tasks in a digital or virtual environment is another way to protect the safety of frontline workers.
  • Increased asset performance: Intelligent manufacturing units clubbed with predictive maintenance can help you boost productivity by preventing problems before they occur and eliminating the delays caused by unexpected equipment failures.
  • Empowered workforce: Intelligent manufacturing software can help streamline workflows and give employees the kind of heightened visibility that allows them to work more efficiently. Employees can also be freed up to focus on higher-level functions by automating basic tasks.

    And although the changing nature of manufacturing has created a skills gap, you can help close that gap not only by providing training to reskill employees, but by leveraging smart connectivity to provide technicians and other workers with team collaboration tools and remote expert assistance that can guide them through troubleshooting procedures and best practices.
  • Better customer satisfaction: Improved visibility and control over the production process allows you to sidestep the problems that cause delivery delays for customers. Microsoft’s intelligent solutions for discrete manufacturers offer built-in quality control features to help make sure your products meet and exceed customers' expectations.

Finally, it's worth noting that Microsoft is in the process of rolling out its brand-new Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing, which offers capabilities for reskilling workers, creating safer and more agile factories, accelerating product development with digital twins, engaging customers, and much more. Visit the Introducing Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing site for a closer look.

[Video] Data and Analytics in Dynamics 365 for Manufacturers

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