The panoply of software solutions and digital services available to manufacturers keeps getting more powerful, more varied, more versatile — and smarter all the time, thanks to ongoing advances in analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
And, of course, the cloud is a crucial part of this Industry 4.0-powered revolution. Case in point: 2021 brought us the news that Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing is in development, and it's expected to be available for public preview by the end of the year.
The Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing comes to us as one of Microsoft's new industry-specific cloud-based offerings, like its sibling offerings Cloud for Financial Services and Cloud for Nonprofit, which join the previously announced Cloud for Healthcare and Cloud for Retail. Additional verticals are expected to be on the way in the future.
These new Industry Clouds draw on the full range of offerings from across Microsoft's portfolio, in combination with partner solutions as well as new capabilities, to create a package that's geared to the specific needs, challenges and opportunities of each industry.
In particular, the Industry Clouds leverage the powerful tools and features of Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365, Microsoft Teams and Power Platform, among other products and services.
To be clear, Microsoft has noted that Microsoft Industry Clouds are not separate instances of Azure and are not logically or physically isolated. Rather, "Microsoft industry clouds extend existing cloud services to provide industry-specific value through trusted and integrated capabilities."
What's inside the Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing?
Like its siblings, the Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing weaves together benefits from a wide array of products and services from Microsoft and its partners — creating a vertical-focused solution for the needs of manufacturers. Here’s a look at its components:
- Workforce Empowerment and Transformation
Intelligent factories depend on smart, empowered employees. Upskilling employees and closing skills gaps to keep pace with the rapidly changing landscape is crucial. Fortunately, the same technology that's changing the landscape can be used to help workers navigate it.
Keeping frontline workers and office workers connected is a key piece of the puzzle. Microsoft Teams offers efficient, integrated communication and collaboration tools; flexible shift scheduling tools; and seamless task management.
Training is another essential piece, and Microsoft Viva Learning tackles this challenge by not only bringing together an extensive trove of content from recognized partners across the learning ecosystem (like Coursera, Skillsoft, LinkedIn Learning, Udacity and many more) — but also by incorporating learning into the natural rhythm and flow of the workday, and building it into the platforms that employees are already using.
- Safe and Agile Factories
Better operational visibility is one of the greatest boons that Industry 4.0 tech can deliver — providing the ability to continuously monitor and analyze processes to rapidly forecast, detect and solve problems through predictive maintenance. The many payoffs include increased safety, better asset performance and reduced operational costs. Data from connected devices makes it possible to improve both processes and products. Whether you're starting out from brownfield or greenfield conditions, Azure Industrial IoT provides tools to help realize these promises by modernizing systems and maximizing interoperability.
Of course, security needs to be top of mind as digital transformation moves forward, and that's where Microsoft Defender for IoT comes in. It offers comprehensive security including unified threat protection for IoT and OT (Operational Technology) devices, as well as vulnerability management and continuous, agentless network detection and response (NDR). IoT/OT-aware behavioral analytics make it possible to monitor for anomalous or unauthorized activity, and instantly detect unauthorized remote access or compromised devices.
Meanwhile, Azure IoT Hub improves asset productivity and OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) by enabling secure, cloud-based two-way communication among billions of IoT devices. You can actively and reliably monitor and manage devices while making sure each one is authenticated and up to date.
Autonomous systems are one of the most exciting frontiers in Industry 4.0 technology. Drawing on the power of AI and machine learning, autonomous systems go a step beyond automatic systems. As AI-powered systems work together, they gain the ability to sense and adapt to small changes in manufacturing environments and processes on the fly — improving quality, boosting productivity and even driving innovation. Autonomous systems powered by Microsoft AI are being deployed in all kinds of interesting ways — up to and including the quest to turn out perfect Cheetos.
- Resilient Supply Chains
Dealing with supply-chain disruptions, as well as unexpected spikes in consumer demand, has been a major headache for manufacturers throughout the pandemic. Microsoft Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management helps you surmount those challenges by providing real-time visibility into your supply chain from the production line to the warehouse and beyond, including the transportation of products and materials.
Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Management provides tools for planning and optimization, so you can predict disruptions and take proactive steps to address them. It also allows you to accelerate time to market by responding more quickly to resolve issues with product quality, and maximize the uptime and lifecycle of your equipment and assets through predictive maintenance.
And Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Insights, now in preview, ups the game by drawing on the power of AI to enable better decision-making through prescriptive insights. It facilitates improved collaboration with suppliers, partners, and team members, to help identify risks early on and put solutions in place. You can also create a digital twin of your supply chain to perform what-if simulations, allowing you to visualize contingency plans for a wide range of scenarios.
- Digital Innovation
Speaking of digital twins: In addition to creating a virtual representation of your supply chain with Dynamics 365 Supply Chain Insights, Cloud for Manufacturing gives you access to the full power of Azure Digital Twins. Create digital representations of all kinds of real-world things, places, processes and people. You can set up comprehensive models of a seemingly endless range of physical environments, including buildings, factories, farms, energy networks, railways, stadiums — even entire cities.
When your digital twin is created, Azure lets you connect input from your IoT devices and assets, sharing data via Azure IoT Hub or other systems to provide you with actionable insights from the entire environment.
- Customer Engagement
Better outcomes for customers fuel growth and transformation. So Cloud for Manufacturing makes customer satisfaction and engagement an essential part of its offerings.
Dynamics 365 Field Service brings together data insights and connected experiences to help you make the leap from reactive to predictive service. By drawing on Dynamics 365 Remote Assist and other mixed-reality tools, as well as mobile knowledge-base resources, field technicians can get expert support to help them resolve cases more quickly and with better outcomes. You can optimize your service operations through AI-enabled scheduling recommendations that help make sure the right technician is dispatched at the right time. IoT sensors help you reduce service calls via predictive maintenance — and when service calls are necessary, the options for self-scheduling deliver an appealing level convenience for customers.
Meanwhile, Dynamic 365 Sales helps you accelerate both sales and revenue by providing sharper customer insights and empowering more effective communication between buyers and sellers. Dynamics 365's AI-powered sales accelerator helps sellers prioritize their customer lists to identify the best leads to reach out to next, while serving up key sales information and customer context to enable smarter selling.
An Eye on the Future: Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability
In addition to their own customizations, all Industry Clouds (including Cloud for Manufacturing) are compatible with Microsoft's new Cloud for Sustainability, which is currently available for preview. Cloud for Sustainability is designed to help companies accelerate their sustainability journey as they record, report and reduce their organization’s environmental impact through automated data connections and actionable insights.
Sustainability goes hand in hand with efficiency, agility and resilience. Sustainable processes are more future-proof — better prepared to withstand the shocks and disruptions that lie ahead. And often the goals of sustainability and agile manufacturing naturally align — as in the case of lean manufacturing processes that reduce waste of materials and resources.
According to Kees Hertogh, general manager of global industry product marketing at Microsoft, speaking with Technology Record, Microsoft created the Cloud for Sustainability as a standalone platform because “it’s relevant to all industries, and the data coming from it provides insights that are unique for each industry. Sustainability is top of mind for every industry, and it will take all of us as a global set of organizations to come together to achieve the necessary targets.”
“Most businesses can only see a very small sliver of their emissions data because it is siloed and lives in various places,” Hertogh adds. “Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability acts as a connector to aggregate the data, which provides accurate carbon accounting that organizations can use to benchmark against their carbon goals."
As also reported by Technology Record, Microsoft has been collaborating with key manufacturers to produce "outstanding sustainability outcomes" — identified as "Lighthouse" manufacturing companies by the World Economic Forum. As one example, WEF Lighthouse firm Schneider Electric has reportedly reduced as much as 78% of its carbon footprint using Industry 4.0 technologies and Microsoft Azure.
Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson, which has excelled in the creation of WEF Lighthouse factories, recently achieved its first carbon-neutral facility — while at the same time increasing overall equipment effectiveness by 14 percent using robotic apps, and reducing the cost of goods by 20% by employing digital twins for product development to simplify the supply chain. That's a great example of the synergy between efficiency and sustainability.