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COVID-19 has shocked markets and supply chains globally. Manufacturers are experiencing turbulence caused by disruptions in material supply and factory closures while facing the increasing demand for critical supplies on a global scale. 

At Microsoft, together with our partners, we are working with manufacturers to help them respond to these challenges and adapt to the new conditions, as well as reimagine their businesses for the new normal.

Disruptions To Supplies Chains And Production

Microsoft: Navigating Challenges Of COVID-19 And Innovating In A Time Of Crisis – Recommendations For Manufacturers

Supply chains have been impacted with shortages and delays which translate to increased production time and higher costs. Technologies like automation, AI, machine learning, and IoT can minimise this impact. As a result, we see many organisations shifting to cloud technologies to speed up and automate supply chain processes.

For example, the Luminate Control Tower by Blue Yonder, charts the spread of COVID-19 against a firm’s supply chain metrics to identify elements of the supply chain that are at risk. Powered by Microsoft Azure, and AI and ML-based forecasting engines, the solution harnesses data from an organisation’s entire digital ecosystem, enabling customers to see up to 30 per cent reduction in expenses, and 60 per cent increased planning efficiency as a result of using this control tower.

On the other hand, due to the high demand for critical medical supplies, like face masks or ventilators, some manufacturers, with technological capabilities to do so, redesigned their production facilities to deliver these critical supplies to their communities.

An interesting example of how technology helps to respond to the changing market conditions with agility is a Hong Kong-based OneMask company, which was able to set up a mask manufacturing line in under a few weeks to meet shortages in the country, by leveraging Microsoft Dynamics 365 Business Central and AI.

Creating Autonomous Systems With AI

Recent developments in smart systems have enabled distinct improvements in process optimisation while creating safer, faster operations. 

Project Bonsai, available in public preview on the Azure cloud service, aims to use ‘machine teaching’ to help industrial robots interact with the world. Here is how Project Bonsai works: first, subject matter experts without an AI background are asked to break up their workflow into simple steps and tasks, that are then taught to the AI agents. The AI system then acts out the lessons in a simulated environment, and the experts are able to provide feedback and guidance as the system learns. Once it becomes proficient, it can be integrated into real-world manufacturing scenarios.

Siam Cement Group said that the model it developed with its own team, on top of Project Bonsai, can run its operating procedure in simulation ‘100,000 times a day.’

Preventing Disruptions To Productivity

Last, but not least, manufacturers need to stay connected and agile despite scaled back operations or distancing measures. It is also essential that employees are empowered to provide consistent, personalised support to customers remotely. 

To do so, they pivot toward modern workplace transformation and embrace collaborative platforms that enable productive remote work. For example, China International Marine Containers was able to bypass restrictions of different work locations, and Joyson Electronic now facilitates cross-regional collaboration across 30 countries and over 50,000 employees by leveraging solutions such as Teams and Microsoft 365.

Key Recommendations For The Short And Long Term

In the immediate post-crisis, innovation will be crucial for operational resilience and recovery. According to McKinsey, manufacturers who have adopted IoT at scale have demonstrated significant improvements for operational key performance indicators, including increased output by 10 to 200 per cent, and decreased time to market by 30 to 90 per cent.

In the long run, innovation will need to take the form of a digital ecosystem integrating each level of manufacturing—from resource planning to business intelligence, regulations, and so on. 

Ultimately, the industry will need to come together for each level of production to be integrated and for a cohesive workflow to be established, from start to end.

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