Combining physical and digital manufacturing

Microsoft’s Indranil Sircar discusses how weaving together digital and physical environments is enabling manufacturers to optimise processes, predict business outcomes and elevate the customer experience

Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths on 16 December 2022
Combining physical and digital manufacturing

Astute investment in digital transformation has become the hallmark of an efficient, resilient and innovative manufacturing organisation.  

Now, industry leaders are using mixed reality, autonomous systems and digital twins – virtual replicas of real-world entities and processes – to unite digital and physical environments and enable continuous optimisation.  

“Manufacturing companies are looking for ways to manage and optimise their operations and supply chains to become more resilient, efficient, sustainable and profitable,” says Indranil Sircar, chief technology officer of manufacturing and supply chain at Microsoft. “Leveraging their existing digital transformation investments while implementing digital twins and digital threads empowers companies with simulation, predictive insights and automation. It gives them a view of their business that spans the past, present and future.” 

Microsoft Azure is the thread that weaves these digital and physical environments together, and the company is ensuring that every developer and organisation can get the best from it.  

“Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing was built to leverage inherent Azure capabilities like the internet of things (IoT), high performance compute and storage, zero-trust security, partner application ecosystems, confidentiality, data sovereignty, streamlined technology stacks, cloud-to-edge development and artificial intelligence,” says Sircar. “It is the foundation on which digital engineering, digital twins and digital threads are built and from which enterprises will consume ready-made services and build their own custom services.” 

Already, these technologies are yielding the insights that are crucial for resilient and sustainable manufacturing. At Bosch, for example, Azure digital twin technology has taken human-machine collaboration to new levels to enable perfectly timed maintenance to ensure equipment effectiveness. Bosch’s integrated asset performance management solution, powered by a digital twin that runs on Azure, lets rotating machines such as turbines and electric motors indicate when they need maintenance, helping them to run with optimal costs and maximum efficiency. 

Meanwhile, a collaboration between Microsoft and Mercedes-Benz illustrates how manufacturers can use simulations to gain a better understanding of how cost, quality and sustainability intersect. AI, digital twins and data analytics have been harnessed to develop the automaker’s new data platform that connects passenger car plants to the Microsoft Cloud. It provides real-time feedback to solve supply chain bottlenecks and dynamically allocate resources to prioritise low-emission and top-end luxury vehicles – with a 20 per cent improvement in vehicle production efficiency expected by 2025. Sustainability is also prioritised as analytics tools monitor and forecast carbon emissions, energy and water usage and waste management. 

“Efficient and resilient supply chains require a complete understanding of raw material selection, acquisition and consumption,” says Sircar. “This data, combined with manufacturing data, guides manufacturers to understand when raw materials will be available, in what quantities and from which vendor. Manufacturers also need to factor in finished product delivery commitments and contract parameters. Having a platform that can track and predict this data in real time and in simulations is the only way to achieve efficient and resilient supply chains. Using digital twins from the raw materials side, manufacturing process and delivery and contract systems creates the digital thread that manufacturers are asking for.” 

Digital twin and digital thread capabilities are also enabling manufacturers to create breakthrough customer experiences. Sircar points to P&G, which recently announced a partnership with Microsoft to transform its digital manufacturing platform. Its goal is to leverage the industrial internet of things, digital twin, data and AI to bring products to consumers faster and increase customer satisfaction, all while improving productivity and reducing costs. In doing so, P&G will enable itself to create solutions for the daily problems of millions of consumers while generating value for all stakeholders. 

“Customers are paying closer attention to how products are made in terms of traceability of materials and sustainability practices,” says Sircar. “They also want great value and good support before, during and after the sale. To deliver this level of service and engagement, manufacturers must correlate data from customer experience, product development and the manufacturing process. They must be able to show why they chose a particular raw material, where that material came from and how much energy was consumed making the product. Digital twins and digital threads, using real data from customer relationship management and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, can help manufacturers show a direct link between customer sentiment, product quality and support. This can be a real competitive advantage and lead to many other product development insights.” 

Manufacturing is an industry that characteristically embraces innovation, so it is fitting that some organisations are already seeing the value that digital twin and digital thread technology can deliver. For those at an earlier stage of their transformation journey, Sircar says it’s important to get the basics in place.  

“Once manufacturing assets are securely connected to the Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing, building a common data foundation that puts normalised operational technology (OT) data in the proper context is a critical first step,” says Sircar. “This standardised data is used to build the digital twin and digital thread baseline. Without it, no matter what type of IT tool or technology is thrown at the problem, very little value will come from any effort or investment.” 

Building on that foundation by adding OT, ERP and other data provides the end-to-end view required for continual operational improvement. And as digital and physical worlds converge, a universe of unbounded innovation – the metaverse – is emerging.  

“With the Microsoft Cloud for Manufacturing and digital twins, every stakeholder has access to the software and support required to provide a comprehensive view of product development, customer engagement and the manufacturing process,” say Sircar. “This level of integration, access, correlation and visualisation enables manufacturers to design, build and operate their business from a single digitally native platform. It will transform the manufacturing industry, in turn preparing firms for the next wave of innovation where digital twins play a central role – the industrial metaverse.” 

A variety of Microsoft partners also contributed to this feature: Ansys, ARC Advisory Group, Avanade, AVEVA, Bosch, Cosmo Tech, ICONICS, Johnson Controls, PTC, Schneider Electric and Willow. Read about how they are using – and helping customers to use – digital twin and digital thread technologies to transform the industry.  

An open ecosystem 
Ron Zahavi: Microsoft and Digital Twin Consortium 

New technologies need the support of a collaborative ecosystem to define standards, drive innovation and help users understand the best ways to realise the value of their investments. That’s why, in 2020, Microsoft became a founding member of the Digital Twin Consortium (DTC), an open programme dedicated to driving the awareness, adoption, interoperability and development of digital twin technology. Since then, DTC has grown to include more than 170 members across 31 countries. 

DTC is an environment where technology providers, end users, government agencies and academic bodies work together to provide actionable guidance for people at every stage of the digital twin adoption journey. Its manufacturing working group, for instance, is focused on exploring the use of digital twins to accelerate product development, reduce defects, troubleshoot equipment, increase uptime and decrease costs. Working closely with the Industrial Digital Twin Association, the group is supporting technologies like the Asset Administration Shell, a service that Microsoft helped to develop, which enables standardised exchange of digital twin manufacturing data. 

As well as supporting users’ and developers’ needs today, DTC is also liaising with standards forums and other consortia to build a foundation for the future. Key focus areas include the industrial metaverse and sustainability – identified by DTC members as fields where digital twins have a key role to play. 

Ron Zahavi is chief strategist for IoT standards at Microsoft Azure IoT and executive director of the Digital Twin Consortium 

This article was originally published in the Winter 2022 issue of Technology Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription

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