Microsoft Focuses on Simplifying Intelligent Industry

April 1, 2019
From security to digital twins to blockchain, Microsoft highlights a message of how it can help simplify and ease the adoption of these complex technologies, platforms and concepts.

At Hannover Messe this year, the event’s theme of “Integrated Industry—Industrial Intelligence” aimed to highlight the digital transformation of industry around automation, IT platforms and artificial intelligence (AI). In its exhibit at the event, Microsoft targeted each aspect of the event’s theme by promoting its AI experiences, mixed reality with HoloLens 2, and Dynamics 365 enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management software.

Most notable for readers of Automation World was Microsoft’s focus on the Azure Security Center, Azure IoT Connected Factory and Blockchain platform. I spoke with Caglayan Arkan, global lead of Microsoft’s Manufacturing & Resources Industry, about these specific areas.

“For us, we see security as job No. 1,” Arkan said. “That’s why we’re focused on making software that’s easy to implement and use.” This translates into having Microsoft’s Azure Security Center be inclusive of OPC UA-enabled assets by making it easy for anyone to run a security audit on these assets and even drill down into the details of a device in order to take actions like running updates or turning specific properties on or off.

Microsoft and the OPC Foundation began working together more closely on the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) about three years ago. This working relationship now extends to making security inclusive of everything in a manufacturing environment to provide an end-to-end security view of  operations. "When you look at OPC UA and how it’s built on the OSI [Open Systems Interconnection] model–that’s the level of detail you can assess with the Azure Security Center," Arkan said. "You can access all data on all subjects and sections—edge devices, PLCs, sensors and gateways—and be able to stay on top of it all from a security standpoint.”

Azure Sentinel, a component of Azure Security Center for IoT, can predict potential threats with AI-enabled security information and event management (SIEM). "All of this can be integrated into Azure IoT Hub for a single global dashboard of all assets in your manufacturing environment,” Arkan added.

“We’re trying to take the need for technical expertise out of the equation and present security as a service so that it’s usable by anyone, not just IT experts,” Arkan said.

Connected Factory
Microsoft’s adoption of OPC UA to access the data of all OPC UA-enabled assets on the plant floor also aids in the creation of a digital twin of these assets. This translates into the ability to capture a machine or device’s entire data model so that you can deal with everything from certification management to security. “From an operations side, you can monitor a piece of equipment and view its utilization, OEE [overall equipment effectiveness], quality metrics, etc.,” Arkhan said. “We’re also working on an OPC Vault so that you can do security key management and have all OPC UA-enabled assets on an active directory to verify what each and every asset is, what it is doing, and what it is supposed to do. All of that will be integrated into the Azure IoT Connected Factory to quickly connect all of your assets so that you can stand up an IoT and machine learning use case to do predictive work or just monitor the asset.”

Arkan explained further that Microsoft uses OPC UA to transmit data to and from a device to create a full digital twin of any asset—even a programmable logic controller (PLC)—to understand how it behaves.

While most visions of the digital twin remain focused on twins of machines or devices, the Azure IoT Connected Factory vision of the digital twin is “a top-down architecture of your plant that uses OPC UA data to build a twin of all of the plant’s assets and their operational metrics to provide an end-to-end view of the factory that can define space, hierarchy, ontology and the people in that space so that you can understand movements within the operation as a whole to optimize the entire factory,” Arkhan said.

As industry gets up to speed on blockchain and how it can be used to improve a number of industrial operations, one of the biggest questions users have is how to get started with it. As with the security and the connected factors described above, Microsoft is positioning itself as a simplifier of blockchain too.

“We have a blockchain platform that is ledger-agnostic,” said Arkan, “So we embrace everything mainstream that’s out there. The Azure Blockchain Workbench can be used to set up quick proofs of concept to determine what works best for you.”

For its Blockchain Workbench, Microsoft is bringing together different topologies and ledgers from partners including Hyperledger, Ethereum, Corda, Quorum, HPE, Wipro, Accenture, SAP, Adobe and Salesforce, among others, said Arkan. Azure blockchain samples are also available on Github, he said, highlighting Microsoft’s democratization of its blockchain platform.

At Hannover Messe last year, Microsoft promoted its work with Bühler, a major supplier of machines for food processing, around an AI-enabled computer with machine vision that could separate aflatoxin-polluted grains from healthy ones. This is a significant advance considering that Bühler machines process 60 percent of the world’s grains, Arkan noted.

“The world population is projected to be 10-11 billion by 2050,” Arkan said. "That means we’ll need 70 percent more food. But there’s no more water or land available to grow this additional food, so there has to be a technology approach to this to avoid any waste of food.”

To address this point, Microsoft highlighted its work with Bühler at Hannover Messe this year around blockchain-enabled traceability. “Once we successfully isolated the aflatoxic grains [with the technology shown last year], with blockchain we can trace it back to a farm where the problem exists and teach them sustainable agriculture.”

Blockchain's traceability function is not limited to agriculture. “In the supply chain space, you can use it to look at anti-counterfeiting, component tracking, demand forecasting, asset management and 3D printing,” Arkan noted. He explained Moog’s use of blockchain for 3D printing in the aerospace industry as an example of how blockchain enable intellectual property protection by providing a unique code that can only be sent to and accepted by designated, certified 3D printers. “This way, the OEM knows the design is authentic from Moog,” he said.

Read more about Moog’s use of blockchain for 3D printed parts.

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