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In a previous post, we introduced the four components of our approach to openness in industrial IoT (IIoT). Although openness has long been a central concept for us, inspiring hundreds of products and services that can connect platforms and the seamless transfer of data between them, the specific ways we execute on this strategy have recently generated a lot of interest.

This makes sense. The increased need for smart manufacturing has spurred a digital transformation in the industry. To remain competitive, manufacturers must move beyond the proprietary systems that have defined their industry for decades and instead link together disparate technologies, correlate different data sets, and unify entire systems, factories, and enterprises.

In other words, they need to become more open.

Open standards 

Open standards are fundamental to how we break down barriers to innovation, flexibility, and efficiency. By standardizing interfaces and information, we can promote interoperability in factories throughout supply chains and across entire enterprises. This creates complete visibility and frictionless communication, allowing manufacturers to more intelligently maximize business value.

A key focus area of our openness strategy is our support for the Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA) across Microsoft’s IIoT services. As a result of our decades-long partnership with the OPC Foundation, OPC UA is an open standard that manufacturers can adopt to make their devices, systems, and data fully interoperable. We have made significant contributions to extend OPC UA across the IIoT space and cloud.

In addition to making all Azure IIoT solutions compatible with OPC UA, we regularly help businesses deploy applications that are aligned with OPC UA standards, ensuring they will work across platforms. We also have leveraged our vast partner ecosystem to develop solutions that help manufacturers adapt legacy hardware to OPC UA’s open concepts. For instance, by using custom adapters that standardize data at the intelligent edge, manufacturers can map their existing machines to open data models, unlocking new data and opportunities.

OPC UA is a powerful tool that has helped us promote open standards across the manufacturing space, however, our commitment to openness means not limiting customers in any way. That’s why, as we extend OPC UA support to even more cloud technologies such as analytics and AI-based anomaly detection, we will continue to let customers choose the standards that work best for them.

Open platform

The “best-of-breed” concept—the idea that businesses should let their customers use the best solution for the job—is a foundational part of our openness strategy. Preventing vendor lock-in was a critical reason behind our original partnership with the OPC Foundation. It was also a goal when we created our Azure IIoT team and began expanding our software portfolio to the cloud. As a result, we’ve made support for open platforms central to our IIoT solutions and services.

Most notably, manufacturers have the freedom to mix and match our Azure products with the hardware and platforms that make the most sense for their business. For example, customers can employ custom IoT software and devices, then read that data and upload it to the cloud with their provider using Azure IoT Hub. And as business needs change and old solutions no longer fit, new solutions can easily be integrated without disrupting the entire system.

Unilever, a manufacturing giant that owns iconic brands like Dove and Vaseline, is leveraging Azure’s open platform support to digitally transform its global supply chain. By using the Azure IoT platform to connect its industrial machines, Unilever is building a digital model of its factories, called a digital twin. This gives the company the visibility it needs to analyze its current processes, optimize outcomes, and discover efficiencies—all while using its existing factory technology. As a result of Azure’s open platform compatibility, the company has begun transferring some factory tasks to the more productive algorithms of its digital twin, ensuring it is maximizing production capacity and fully utilizing every asset.

Open source

Open source creates trust and gives long-term investment security, and our support for these solutions provides manufacturers with the flexibility they need to realize these benefits for their organizations. For instance, we publish all of our IIoT products publicly on our Azure Industrial IoT GitHub page. This allows manufacturers to easily build out a custom system that will connect, monitor, and control IIoT devices according to the OPC UA standard.

And we continue to invest in developing open-source projects that add value for our customers. For example, Azure Kubernetes Service (AKS) makes it much easier to use Kubernetes, an open-source system for deploying and managing containerized applications. By handling critical tasks like health monitoring and maintenance in Azure, AKS reduces the complexity and operational overhead of managing Kubernetes. In addition, this solution comes with features like accelerated application development, Visual Studio Code integration, and identity management through Azure Active Directory, showing what’s possible when Microsoft applies its resources to the open-source field.

As part of its digital transformation, Maersk, the biggest container-shipping company in the world, embraced open-source software to save more engineering resources and speed up development times. And because the Azure platform fully supports open-source applications, Maersk uses it to manage many of its tasks, including overseeing its dynamic application environment.

“Using Kubernetes on Azure satisfies our objectives for efficient software development,” says Rasmus Hald, head of Cloud Architecture at Maersk. “It aligns well with our digital plans and our choice of open-source solutions for specific programming languages.”

Open data models

Maintaining easy access to data is especially important in the manufacturing industry, where information can remain relevant for years—even decades. So while open standards make it possible to pull data from disparate applications, open data models allow manufacturers to maintain access to valuable data in the cloud, as well as the insights it may contain, even when they switch cloud vendors.

To take full advantage of an interoperable environment, we’ve gone beyond standardizing hardware, software, and cloud applications to ensure that different data sets also can be easily accessed and analyzed. For instance, we are the only cloud vendor that is capable of automatically converting proprietary data into an open format as it is transferred to the cloud. No matter when data is stored or what format it is in, this makes it possible—even easy—for anyone to access and analyze it later on. Because of this, we’re uniquely positioned to facilitate an open standard for telemetry data all the way into the cloud.

For many years, Microsoft has driven openness in the industrial space. This commitment translates into a comprehensive approach that has transformed how manufacturers connect their devices, systems, and applications to the cloud. As we move beyond the current era of digital transformation, we’re continually refining this strategy and applying it to other areas, such as the intelligent edge, to ensure that innovation, flexibility, and efficiency remain cornerstone features of IIoT.

Learn more about how Azure IoT for Manufacturing can create additional value for your business.