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Workers are the biggest assets in the evolving manufacturing industry. Today’s employees expect contemporary work environments and to be managed differently than they were in the modern era of manufacturing that began in the 1920s, according to Gallup research. So, how can the industry create a modern manufacturing workplace in today’s digital age?

Workforce challenges in manufacturing

Manufacturers have heavily invested in transforming their operational technology (OT), creating more connected and intelligent factories, equipment and supply chains for big gains in productivity and new models of doing business.

But on the employee side of things, the manufacturing industry’s IT investments haven’t kept up. Its workforce still faces many of the same challenges it has for the past several decades. This means that there is untapped productivity and creativity in the workforce that has yet to be realized through technology.

Also, the new industrial environment of today will require different skills for factory workers, for example, how to configure and service robots in order to work with them in new ways and in shared space.

The need for IT innovation is particularly pressing for firstline workers like plant floor operators, field service technicians and delivery specialists. These 95 million manufacturing employees make up a massive segment of the industry’s workforce, yet Forbes Insights found that only 36 percent of firstline workers have the technology tools they need. In manufacturing, the majority are forced to spend significant amounts of time searching for information in the field, are unable to collaborate with experts, and are bogged down with manual processes.

IT transformation is also important for information workers, such as product engineers and plant managers, who need the efficiency gains made possible by new analytics, design and collaboration tools. Compounded by the expectations of digitally-savvy millennials entering the workforce, and a new and modern way of working becomes critical to the manufacturing industry’s success.

So how can today’s technology innovations help?

The building blocks of a modern manufacturing workplace

Today’s digital advancements offer tremendous opportunities to transform the manufacturing workplace—enabling IT to catch up with OT. Innovations like world-class mobility, cloud, IoT, advanced analytics, AI, wearables, and mixed reality devices, can be used and combined to provide powerful productivity and collaboration-enhancing capabilities for firstline workers and information workers, and throughout teams and the manufacturing enterprise and supply chains.

Mixed reality technology, in particular, offers an unparalleled opportunity to transform how employees interact with their environment and collaborate in problem-solving—from engineering to manufacturing, field service and training.

Building a modern manufacturing workplace also sets the foundation for a more efficient manufacturing operation by bringing together smart connected things, the intelligent cloud and streamlined people processes. Let’s look at a few examples.

Empowering employees for success

A modern manufacturing workplace empowers both firstline workers and information workers across four key manufacturing functions.

  • Services. Service technicians are equipped with the tools they need to improve services and foster customer engagement. Mixed reality can prepare technicians prior to a service call better than before with all information required to successfully complete their task—and do it hands-free. It also facilitates remote collaboration with an expert in order to maximize employee expertise.
  • Operations. By investing in the tools operations employees need, manufacturers can improve efficiency across the manufacturing floor. They can automate core processes and augment employee work by taking advantage of new advances in human-robot collaboration to maximize employees’ time. They can also enable efficient problem-solving and incident resolution through sophisticated knowledge management, collaboration and communication. And they can distribute training to any device and ramp up new employees faster. Additionally, mixed reality facilitates employee training. Virtual scenarios can simulate common problems that employees will encounter on the job to better prepare them for troubleshooting.
  • Plant management. Here, manufacturers can help their plant managers to leverage plant insights and enhance productivity. This could include simplifying scheduling and staff management to facilitate seamless shift changes and eliminate production line gaps. With new levels of visibility, intelligent reports on equipment productivity and efficiency help plant managers to spot production problems faster. And it enables employees to be productive across many devices and locations, all while protecting priceless IP and customer information.
  • Product engineering. With better resources for design and collaboration, manufacturers can harness the creativity and innovative power of their product engineers. By analyzing data from connected products, engineers can more easily develop customer-centric designs. Collaboration tools allow engineers to work together in a seamless environment, co-author designs, and share documents securely. Mixed reality is also unleashing creativity through the visualization of design concepts. Rather than needing to physically produce multiple prototypes, designers can iterate digitally and see the impact that different ideas would have on a product. This reduces the amount of time for design iterations and makes it easier to test out creative ideas.

Enabling a modern workplace in manufacturing

Microsoft is focused on helping manufacturers harness today’s technology innovations to transform their businesses, and creating a modern workplace is a critical component.

Our goal, both externally and for our company as well, is to create an environment in which employees can enjoy secure, highly reliable platforms for exchanging ideas, having conversations, collaborating, and doing their best work.

Microsoft 365, built on intelligent technology like Office Graph and AI, offers productivity and collaboration tools that support modern work styles and empower firstline workers and information workers to enhance their efficiency and capabilities. Industry-leading mixed reality devices like HoloLens maximize innovation and collaboration, and Microsoft’s trusted platform provides essential security and compliance with industry standards. Microsoft 365 is also uniquely positioned to help manufacturers with GDPR.

There are many examples of manufacturing leaders tapping into the latest digital advancements to achieve a modern manufacturing workplace and its benefits. Aston Martin is a great example, firmly on track to accelerate production by using Microsoft 365 digital tools to energize employee creativity, data insights, and teamwork. Cummins is also using Microsoft 365 to anchor a new workplace culture for its 58,000-plus employees and is now empowering them to collaborate and innovate globally—in highly secure ways.

The interest in mixed reality is also high, and there are notable examples of manufacturers across industry segments like Ford, Honeywell, and thyssenkrupp who are tapping into its potential to transform product design, enable smart factories, equip field technicians with new capabilities, and revolutionize training.

These exciting stories are just a sample of what manufacturers can achieve. At Microsoft, we’ll continue to help manufacturers take advantage of IT advancements to maximize innovation and collaboration. Learn more about our vision for a modern manufacturing workplace here and visit www.microsoft.com/manufacturing.

Twitter: @indranilsircar

LinkedIn: Indranil Sircar