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Digital Transformation

Pact Group gears up for Industry 4.0, with AI and the cloud packing a punch

Pact Group is a dynamic and robust speciality packaging provider with more than 80 operations throughout Australasia. As part of its focus on continued growth and efficiency, it is continuing its strategic investment in cloud technologies and cognitive services whilst pursuing opportunities for transformational change.

Underpinning this focus is the push towards integrated automated manufacturing within a digitally enabled supply chain – as part of Pact Group’s evolution towards Industry 4.0.

While Industry 3.0 focused on the automation of single machines and processes, Industry 4.0 focuses on the end-to-end digitisation of all physical assets and integration into digital ecosystems with value chain partners.

To enable this transition Pact Group’s Chief Information Officer, Michael Ross, has been focused on establishing a digital foundation that can easily scale to support artificial intelligence, machine learning, the internet of things, quantum computing and automation.

It is a long journey, but Pact Group is already stepping up to the plate.

Led by Ross, it has already transitioned its core SAP platform across to Microsoft Azure, along with more than 90% of its core workloads, and is in the process reaping significant performance dividends.

Azure also offers a robust foundation for Pact’s future transformation plans which include the possibility of using autonomous drones to support stocktaking activities; leveraging machine learning to schedule predictive maintenance across its thousands of manufacturing lines; and supporting enterprise decision making using Power BI turbocharged by the Microsoft Bot framework.

Michael Ross, Chief Information Officer at Pact Group

As part of establishing the right digital foundation, Pact Group needed to get a better handle on its current operations and ensure it had access to a single view of the truth that could be explored and exploited. That led Ross to roll out Power BI across the business.

It’s been a huge success to the extent that “there’s been a tipping point for us in the last eight months, where people won’t accept something if it’s not derived from that single source of truth,” says Ross.

For those in our business whose previous role might have involved laborious extract, transform and load operations to access and make available critical data, the introduction of Power BI has empowered them to be more focused on generating insights and analytics to better meet the needs of executives”.  

“Certainly, having our execs come and say, ‘If it’s not in Power BI, I don’t believe it, that is the single source of truth, and that’s the reference’,” is also driving the uptake of the solution he says.

The scale and granularity available within that enterprise truth is also rising rapidly with the opportunity for much more data to be integrated in the short to medium term.

“Across the group we have thousands of physical manufacturing machines that operate 24×7 but we don’t yet have a centrally aggregated view of their collective performance and efficiency,” says Ross.

“We see there’s an opportunity to gain better control and insight, and to extend predictive analytics, and thus predictive maintenance to those machines. So, the IoT space is something very tangible and real for us, and a real opportunity for us to transform our business,” he says.

Ross hopes to capture IoT data starting in early 2018; “In the beginning simply to get aggregated real-time insights, whilst at the same time gathering time series data that will ultimately support machine learning, pattern behaviour insights and predictive analytics.”

Digital difference

On the journey to Industry 4.0, there has been something of a sea change in the way that Pact Group makes use of technology says Ross. “In the last few years, we’ve looked for opportunities with new processes and systems of Differentiation and Innovation that fundamentally change how we do business”.

“Of course, there have been elements of focus on general productivity tasks but increasingly we are exploring the potential of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and how they’re able to help optimise our business. Right now, we’re trialling some activities around bots to deliver service management and service desk capabilities.”

He plans to use Skype chatbots as the initial interface to IT services before rolling out the technology more broadly.

“The ultimate goal is to empower people to use chatbots to self-serve back-office tasks and interrogate data, and drive processes, should they prefer, rather than interacting via email, phone or web forms.

The opportunity here is to provide a consistent reliable engagement channel.

He is hopeful that in the next 12 months as much as 40% of all back-office interactions will be responded to and supported by bots, with as many as half of those being resolved using artificial intelligence thereby driving efficiency and accuracy and most importantly consistency.

Future foundation

Given the pace of innovation facing the manufacturing and industrial sectors, having a richly featured and resilient cloud ecosystem such as Azure is a distinct ally according to Ross.

He acknowledges the school of thought that relying on a single technology partner can be risky, but based on his own experience believes the benefits outweigh the risks.

“The benefit for Pact is that these emerging services are plumbed together and maintained by Microsoft.  New features and capabilities continue to be enabled at little to no additional cost – and we don’t need to build the middleware and integration layer to support them”.

“Some companies would argue that a multi-cloud strategy helps manage their risk. But the contra view is that it can also drive increased cost, given you’re then having to navigate a lot of that plumbing and interfacing,” he says, adding that having Azure as the digital foundation for innovation is reducing IT’s time to value equation.

As a result, innovation is afoot across the enterprise.

Currently Ross and his team are exploring what he describes as an ‘intelligent kiosk’ focused on enhancing safety at work within a factory.

The concept leverages visual recognition services which are fed streams from multiple cameras around a workplace. Connecting these camera feeds with artificial intelligence software – which includes information about objects and people – could enable the monitoring of work in real time, enforce OH&S policies and even search for people and objects. Furthermore, it could also monitor whether the people working with a particular piece of equipment are appropriately certified and are using it correctly.

“Developing scalable automated capabilities that further enhance safety at work within a factory is what attracts us to the intelligent kiosk”.

“The potential evolution will be to monitor people who are driving forklifts, so that if they’re distracted, or if something falls in their way that the forklifts could automatically slow down, if not shut down, to avoid any injuries,” says Ross.

He says that the maturity of intelligent systems had advanced significantly in the last 12 months and there are significant opportunities for Pact to harness such systems to enhance safety and security, as well boost productivity and performance. He hopes to commence trials in 2018, which if successful would see a rollout to all locations within the year.

Speed cloud

Again, the pace of innovation is supported by Azure.

Says Ross; “Our single cloud strategy allows us to reduce our time to value by enabling us to embrace some of these technologies almost at the flick of a switch”.

“It has been one of the enablers of our culture of experimentation, seamlessly and quickly allowing us to explore what technologies may be able to help complement existing business practices, or act as a differentiator. I can’t be sure whether or not the intelligent kiosk or bots or any related initiatives turn out to be compelling systems of differentiation or innovation, but it’s only through trialling these technologies in the field that we can determine what complements the business.”

Given the scale, reach and growth ambitions of Pact Group, it’s startling to learn that Ross has an in-house team of just four people.

That inherent leanness makes him particularly careful about the technology he leverages and the partnerships he forges as the company builds its digital supply chain. The results of getting it right are compelling.

“The most exciting thing for us is to continue to reduce our time to value, and to continue to invest in technologies that can better streamline business processes, and help us become more engaged with our customers, suppliers, machines as well as our own workforce.”

That’s industry 4.0 in a nutshell.