Microsoft and BMW Want to Standardize Smart Factories

New initiative aims to accelerate industrial IoT solutions

Car-makers have been spending significant sums to produce what have become some of the most technology-packed products on the market. But the manufacturing solutions are often based on proprietary systems, which increases costs and limits economies of scale. Now this is being addressed, with the hope that new standards will be widely adopted.

A couple of weeks ago, at the Hannover Messe, Microsoft and BMW announced a new community initiative to enable faster, more cost-effective innovation in the manufacturing sector, called the Open Manufacturing Platform.

The initiative will be built on Microsoft’s industrial IoT platform, part of its Azure cloud ecosystem. It will offer members a reference architecture with open-source components based on open industrial standards and an open data model. This platform approach is designed not only to facilitate collaboration, but also to unlock and standardize data models that enable analytics and machine learning — data that has traditionally been managed in proprietary systems.

BMW already has 3,000 machines, robots and in-factory autonomous transport systems connected to its group IoT platform, which is built on Azure cloud, IoT and artificial intelligence services.

Microsoft and BMW are looking to foster a broader community for their platform, with an active recruitment campaign to bring in more partners. The companies are working to have an operational advisory board for the platform with an initial set of four to six partners in place, and at least 15 uses rolled out into certain production environments by the end of 2019. They also expect the initiative to grow beyond the automotive sector and for other industries to join their cause.

Executive vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud + AI business, Scott Guthrie, said “Microsoft is joining forces with the BMW Group to transform digital production efficiency across the industry. Our commitment to building an open community will create new opportunities for collaboration across the entire manufacturing value chain”.

The initiative reflects the new Microsoft, with its pivot to cloud services and open-source software. It’s just a recent example of how the Redmond company is making efforts to collaborate. Microsoft also works with SAP, Adobe and others on the Open Data Initiative; with Intel, Google and more to create open standards for connecting data centres; and the software giant is also working with other companies to create standards for software licensing.

IT players have been developing open standards over the past decades, but manufacturing has generally been a more rigid environment, where proprietary systems are the norm and specific to each manufacturer. This has made it difficult to modify and impossible to use in conjunction with other proprietary systems, resulting in higher costs and slower change. But the current speed of change and the growing sophistication of manufacturing machinery as well as the products being made are drawing attention to the need for new, more flexible processes.

The Open Manufacturing Platform comes at a time when practically all robots on factory floors are connected and programmed to work in unison. Manufacturers are exploring ways to build and maintain smart factories more efficiently, so the platform will interest companies from a wide variety of industries.

The effort gives BMW a major role in shaping new standards, and Microsoft a potential window to expand its business in this sector. Collaborative approaches such as this have been successful for many companies looking to find a common way forward. The underlying platforms will continue to evolve over time, in tandem with manufacturing needs, and to incorporate new innovation in the areas of analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence.