If your heads are in the cloud, put them together

Posted on 28 Mar 2024 by Joe Bush

Most manufacturers are on some form of digital transformation journey. Challenges that have hit the sector hard over the last few years – whether that be around supply chain, net zero or skills and talent – has emphasised the need for manufacturers to become more efficient, agile and resilient, and embrace technologies such as cloud and AI.

Emerging digital technologies such as cloud computing and AI have a key role to play in achieving this. However, each manufacturer is at a unique stage of their transformation journey, and all of them rely on an extremely diverse ecosystem of technology capabilities from vendors with deep industry expertise. Therefore, for many manufacturers this journey can often look more like digital trepidation than digital transformation.

With a plethora of technologies out there, provided by myriad solution providers and vendors, some companies have found themselves drowning in technical jargon and have found it very difficult to see the wood for the trees. In a sector that has traditionally been risk averse anyway, this lack of certainty and clarity – to say nothing of the financial impact of failed digital projects, or those stuck in pilot purgatory – has resulted in many companies being reluctant to give the green light to digital transformation.

Here, The Manufacturer speaks to Matt Walsh, Managing Director Manufacturing UK & Nordics Lead at Microsoft about the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program (MAICPP), and how it can help manufacturers to envision a clear roadmap ahead, get started with digital transformation and adoption, accelerate deployment at scale and achieve real return on investment.

Digital dilemmas

Matt explained that the landscape of digital transformation in manufacturing, especially in Northern Europe, is complex and multi-faceted. Manufacturers are embracing digital technologies with varying results, and many are wondering which direction to turn with the next wave of compute with AI. There’s a lot going on in the AI space which is in turn, creating confusion, and questions abound as to where to head next or even where to get started.

“This is where a lot of manufacturers are asking for help,” he said. “But we’re at the stage now where they have to be brave. They’re clear on what they want, it’s just a matter of how fast they want to travel to try and reap the benefits that are available.”

Barriers to entry still persist however, particularly around how manufacturers prioritise the roll out of digital capabilities and where to place investment, while at the same time managing and mitigating risk and continuing business as usual. This has been exacerbated by the ongoing global macro challenges.

The landscape of digital transformation in manufacturing, especially in Northern Europe, is complex and multi-faceted

“There’s a certain amount of inertia that currently exists,” Matt added. “The question is whether or not manufacturers have the confidence to make the next jump around AI, transformation and digital investment; are they in a position where they have the conviction to invest another three to five years in a roadmap to release digital technology capabilities?”

Confidence in the form of the MAICPP

Bringing digital technologies like AI and cloud to life in an industry as complex and diverse as manufacturing requires deep domain expertise. Therefore, rather than trying to achieve this in isolation, Microsoft believe that the capabilities of its partner ecosystem can bring the value of the Microsoft stack to the industry.

As such, the Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program was introduced to accelerate the transformative impact of AI for customers and partners across various business models, including app services and devices.

Introduced a year ago it offers benefits and investments to help partners and customers build AI best practice and make the most of the significant opportunities that AI has within the sector. Its latest round is providing partners with cloud and AI technology, platforms, products, resources and tools to drive customer success.

Matt added: “It is a strategic move for us to ensure that partners are well equipped to navigate the AI era. With so much happening and changing within the AI landscape, and with so much investment being released on our side, it’s vital that we help our partners capitalise on the vast potential AI holds for innovation and growth across all industries. Ultimately The Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program is designed to empower partners with the technology, products and resources needed to build and sell innovative Microsoft Cloud and AI solutions for customers.

  • Empowering partners: The MAICPP aims to empower Microsoft partners by providing them with the tools and knowledge to harness the potential of AI and cloud technologies.
  • Driving innovation: It encourages partners to create cutting-edge solutions that integrate AI capabilities into various aspects of their organisations.
  • Enhancing customer experiences: By participating in the program, partners can enhance customer experiences through AI-driven solutions.

Manufacturing partner solutions our offered through Microsoft’s independent software vendor (ISV) designation which helps bring the best partner solutions to Microsoft’s customers and provides a way for them to identify proven partner solutions aligned with the Microsoft Cloud.

How does it work?

The MAICPP provides support, integration and value across various aspects of manufacturing. For example, an area that is experiencing significant traction is around strategic development and execution of customised training programmes to enhance specific skills and optimise learning outcomes. AI is becoming a true and trusted enabler around learning and knowledge transfer within the sector.

It is also a way for Microsoft partners to access a range of key product benefits and support services that helps them strengthen their own businesses and, by extension, create more robust solutions for customers.

Working with partners such as Siemens, PTC, Schneider, etc, helps Microsoft deliver what it believes to be a platform of platforms. Matt continued: “The whole aim is to democratise AI and make it accessible to every person in every organisation so they can achieve more. It also helps to create a bridge between Microsoft’s AI capabilities and our manufacturing customers. And that ecosystem of partners enables them to leverage AI for innovation and efficiency.”

Customer Example – Siemens Teamcenter and Microsoft Azure solve the tough challenges with a modern PLM

Source : Microsoft Customer Story-Siemens Teamcenter and Microsoft Azure solve the tough challenges with a modern PLM

With Siemens Teamcenter, customers can have full visibility up and down the product lifecycle, from planning, to manufacturing, to purchasing. Deployed on Azure, Siemens offers an adaptable Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) system that connects people and processes that previously were isolated. With the scale, security and reliability of Azure, Siemens is giving its customers an edge over the competition.

John Butler, Global Alliance Leader for Microsoft, commented: “From our perspective, as we started getting into generative AI technology, it was very clear to us that Microsoft was a leader in this space. Their work with OpenAI was critical and was so far ahead of everything else that was happening in the industry. For us, it was a very simple decision.”

As mentioned earlier, scale up is still something of a barrier to entry for manufacturers. However, the MAICPP helps accelerate digital transformation by providing comprehensive portfolio investments for all partner business models – at every stage of maturity, from start-ups to independent software vendors, services to device partners.

This then empowers Microsoft’s partners to deliver customer value using Microsoft AI and Microsoft Cloud, which in turn enables mass manufacturing customers to leverage AI for innovation and efficiency.

“The whole ecosystem is turning on to AI at a rapid scale and pace due to the amount of investment and the speed of change that is taking place around AI. The MAICPP is there to help accelerate and derisk those plans,” added Matt.

He added that this collaborative approach enables manufacturers to get the best out of Microsoft’s offerings and those of its partners, rather than having any one entity working in isolated siloes.

“The only way to build a platform of platforms is by working side by side with our partners,” he continued. “Our key partners provide the application and tooling that manufactures need, which we don’t have. But by running them on Microsoft we can create the trust and security that is needed.”

This helps to create the data harmonisation and democratisation of AI which in turn pieces everything together. Investments can then be made from an engineering standpoint around the acceleration of data, integration and interoperability. “It’s a massive patchwork quilt of solutions and tools that manufacturing customers need, and we help bring it all together.  As AI becomes increasingly critical across industries, Microsoft recognises the need to equip partners with the right resources to capitalise on AI’s economic opportunities.

The MAICPP helps accelerate digital transformation by providing comprehensive portfolio investments for all partner business models

Reducing risk

While Microsoft conduct many digital transformations every day, manufacturers could well be looking at it for the first time. And stepping into the unknown in this way, and wondering where to go next on that AI journey, can leave many feeling like a rabbit in the headlights.

However, Microsoft has been there and done it, and the MAICPP is about bringing those learnings, assets and IP accelerators to the customer. While no digital transformation project is easy, those learnings, capabilities and experience is invaluable and provides the level of trust that manufacturers require to move forward.

Through various projects over the last few years, Microsoft has sought to understand the hurdles its customers face and explore how the Microsoft Cloud can provide incremental value in an environment of macro-economic headwinds.

“I would say our partner programme is unique because we’re the only ones with the level of investment and depth in AI technology. Everyone’s going through an AI transformation, but we’re the ones leading on it,” Matt continued.

Partner specific Examples

Companies use Blue Yonder for end-to-end supply chain management. Blue Yonder, built on Azure, uses AI and ML to provide real-time decision-making power and workflows that help businesses fulfill orders and respond quickly to shifting market conditions.

Sight Machine works with manufacturers to make their businesses stronger, more sustainable and resilient. To better support manufacturers’ data accessibility needs, Sight Machine used Azure OpenAI Service to harness generative AI (GPT-4) and to develop Factory Copilot.

Matt added: “The program is different this year than it was last. It will keep evolving as we learn and new capabilities come online. It will evolve and change as a consequence of that which can only be a positive as it means we’re learning from ourselves.”

Case examples

Siemens: Siemens and Microsoft are harnessing the collaborative power of generative artificial intelligence (AI) to help industrial companies drive innovation and efficiency across the design, engineering, manufacturing and operational lifecycle of products.

To enhance cross-functional collaboration, the companies are integrating Siemens’ Teamcenter software for product lifecycle management (PLM) with Microsoft’s collaboration platform Teams and the language models in Azure OpenAI Service as well as other Azure AI capabilities.

With the new Teamcenter app for Microsoft Teams the companies are enabling design engineers, frontline workers and teams across business functions to close feedback loops faster and solve challenges together.

Royal Mail: Royal Mail needs to remain competitive in a changing business environment. Therefore, it has shifted several of its workloads to Microsoft Azure, helping it access Azure services that enable it to deploy new software to the business more rapidly.

The organisation is benefiting from the automation and elasticity of cloud provisioning to drive efficiencies in development and deployment, and better support the business including with its goals for transformation.

This flexibility and agility not only supports efficient, stable business operations, it also offers additional benefits around flexible provisioning. Uptime has improved and time and resources can now be redirected to innovation. The pace of change has increased – with average delivery reduced from six weeks to two. Most importantly, it now has the perfect platform to realise the full benefits of cloud and support broader transformation.

Rolls-Royce: Rolls-Royce has embraced the digital tools that Microsoft provides, including Microsoft Azure, Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams. The company identified a need to leverage the deep benefits already embedded in the Microsoft stack and to get the most from its existing investment, the team at Rolls-Royce explored a variety of use cases which use Microsoft Power Platform to deliver greater efficiencies and power further improvements to its operations.

Staff have embraced the potential of the tools that make up Microsoft Power Platform, including Power Automate, Power BI and Power Apps. And Power Platform is now the most popular solution area for upskilling at Rolls-Royce, amounting to around 30% of all the training.

The security that the Microsoft ecosystem offers has also freed the teams at Rolls-Royce to develop and innovate freely. This is helping to drive a cultural change within the business as Power Apps has opened Rolls-Royce up to the beauty of employee-led innovation. This not only has an impact on the business’ bottom line, it fundamentally upgrades the culture: every employee is encouraged to develop their skills and solve their own problems.

Vestas: With more than 40 years of experience in wind energy and wind turbines installed in 88 countries, Vestas strives to be the global leader in sustainable energy solutions. The company requires vast amounts of computing power to perform turbine simulations that ensure the proper configuration and placement of turbines and wind farms to maximise energy output and prolong equipment life.

Vestas’ on-premises supercomputer couldn’t keep up with an extensive simulation queue, resulting in business delays. By moving to Microsoft Azure and Azure high-performance computing, Vestas has improved reliability and capacity while reducing maintenance overhead and costs. This is opening new product and service opportunities while helping ensure a greener future for the planet.

Key to the success of this project was the ability to blend the Microsoft solution into a complicated IT ecosystem; the capability to ensure proper interoperation between Azure high-performance computing and Vestas’ many existing systems and applications.

The Microsoft AI Cloud Partner Program is a global community of partners, offerings and resources designed to connect your organisation with everything it needs to build and deploy successful business solutions. Bolstered by Microsoft’s AI technology portfolio and extensive customer reach, this unique partner ecosystem will empower your organisation with exclusive training, support, service, and sales offerings that accelerate innovation and drive growth.

For more stories like this, visit our Digital Transformation channel.