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TCS Innovation Forum shines a light on operating remotely and autonomously in the new beginning

Until a few months ago, we could not have imagined that remote working would become the default option across a wide array of industries in such a short time. Yet, in the face of unprecedented challenges, enterprises have shown tremendous resilience and have continued to serve their purpose by adapting to remote operations.

Organizations are now focussed on attaining a self-aware and autonomous state in operations, which is powered by incredible innovation and will lead the revival of GDP growth.

This was the vision presented during the fourth virtual edition of the 2020 Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) Innovation Forum, taking place as companies around the world have embraced remote working to ensure business continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

For Krishnan Ramanujam, President of Business & Technology Services at TCS, these changes, although prompted by difficult circumstances, will act as a catalyst for global innovation, productivity gains and GDP growth.

“When remote operations become a standard operating procedure for areas that are so far unimagined, I believe this has potential to give so far untapped talent a global reach of business,” he said, citing the massive impact of previous changes such as remote software development and remote manufacturing hubs.

The event − Operating Remotely and Autonomously − examined how connected systems and advanced robotics will create purpose, resilience, and adaptability so businesses are better able to manage future black swan events and even thrive in challenging operating environments.

Adapting operations by leveraging digital investments

Enterprises who were early adopters of IoT and have been traversing the Bringing Life to ThingsTM roadmap, have been able to demonstrate resilience and adapt better to the market dynamics. From connected shipping to remotely-monitoring mines and power plants, companies have been able to beat the odds and benefit from their digital investments.

Indeed, almost half of participants polled during the Forum said that their assets and devices are already connected, and remote operations enabled, while just under a third were using data analytics and predictive algorithms to provide operational insight.

For Johnson & Johnson (J&J), the huge growth of e-commerce during the pandemic meant it had to quickly shift to small-size order quantities at the same time as catering to a large number of consumers.

That meant it needed to simplify the upstream, but shift the complexity downstream, closer to the end user. To do so required agile and flexible production and packaging lines.

This included developing new lines which are agnostic to formats and have rapid changeover times, according to Susanta Bhattacharjee, Vice President of Manufacturing Asia Pacific at Johnson & Johnson Consumer Health.

A continuous manufacturing system − where processes move from a batch-making process to continuous mixing − is just one of project that TCS and J&J have collaborated on together.

Evolution of robotics in the manufacturing industry

With the need for increasing levels of autonomy, the field of robotics will be seeing a quantum leap in innovation across two dimensions. First, the ability of robots to replicate humans in repetitive tasks by acquiring and evolving skills. Second, decision making, where the robot is connected to an outer brain (or a cloud-based system), empowering it to perform tasks which are much more complex and autonomous.

According to Prof. Ohnishi from the Global Research Institute, KEIO University, Tokyo – 70% of the market needs are yet to be met, and robotics needs to evolve rapidly with sharper decision-making skills. He said that, “the robots of the future will be more and more independent by using real haptics to evolve human skills. It is possible. This is very important, and this is our dream.

Vision-based robotics is another area which is currently being implemented by J&J, which is looking to increase its agility by using robots with inbuilt cameras to convey signals to the packaging line.

Sensors also allow for predictive maintenance on machinery, while factory acceptance tests are being conducted remotely. At the same time, experts in different lines in various countries can be connected to share data and innovation: alongside all the other possibilities of AI, it also overcomes the language barrier.

Robots are also increasingly able to help move goods from production lines or shift pallets onto transport carriers, all operated remotely and autonomously.

Adding intelligence across the value-chain in logistics

PostNord, one of the largest postal services companies in the Nordic region, has embraced technologies such as cognitive robotics, image processing and the IoT to add intelligence in every stage of their process to better serve its customers.

“The need to have control over your process has increased because we are running on a very stressed mode,” said Christian Østergaard, Senior Group Strategist, Nordic Strategy & Solutions at PostNord, explaining that the current demand in logistics are at the same levels as they are during the Christmas period.

While the sorting of parcels has been heavily automated for some years, the firm is innovating to optimize its fleet of vehicles. A single push of a button can reveal how much petrol has been used in the last hour, for example, helping to better structure the rest of the day. And image analytics could take a picture inside the truck every time the door is closed, to provide constant monitoring of the filling rate.

PostNord and TCS have also worked together to develop a digital twin – where virtual and physical worlds are paired and IoT, data analytics and simulation techniques are used to re-engineer critical processes – in order to further optimize its transport systems.

A time for change

These examples show that transformative technologies are already up and running, and it is a now case of how and when companies will further invest in them.

More than two-thirds of participants polled said they expected their industry to embrace a high degree of remote and autonomous operations over the next 5 years, with 15% saying they expect that to happen in the next 12 to 24 months.

“All these technologies today are quite mature and industry ready for adoption at scale,” explained Regu Ayyaswamy, Senior Vice President & Global Head, Internet of Things (IoT) and Engineering & Industrial Services at TCS. “And they can be used very easily to build autonomous systems in an accelerated manner.”

And for PostNord, it is a case of collaborating with partners such as TCS to gain a thorough knowledge of the options before deciding where to invest.

“I think that we are sitting right now in front of a shelf of opportunities, where we can pick and choose the intelligence,” said Østergaard.

“Because if you fight disruption, it’s not going to help you. But if you embrace it, you have a better chance for the future.”