Car companies are making big investments in technology to help ensure that they are not cut out of the next generation of transportation and automotive manufacturing, and today came the latest development in that trend.
The BMW Group and Microsoft announced they would team up in a new effort called the Open Manufacturing Platform, aimed at developing and encouraging more collaborative IoT development in the manufacturing sector, focusing on smart factory solutions and building standards to develop them in areas like machine connectivity and on-premises systems integration.
The two companies have not disclosed how much they intend to invest in the project — we have sent a message to ask. The plan will be to bring in more manufacturers and suppliers — the goal, they say, is to have between four and six others with them, working on 15 use cases by the end of this year — working with open source components, open industrial standards and open data to develop both hardware and software that runs on it.
The two say that future partners do not have to be from within the automotive industry.
The OMP will be built on Microsoft’s industrial IoT platform — part of its Azure cloud business. But this is a natural progression of how Microsoft and BMW were already working together. BMW already has 3,000 machines running on Azure cloud, IoT and AI services in its existing robots and in-factory autonomous transport systems, and it said it will be contributing some of the technology that it had already built — for example around its self-driving systems — into the group as part of the effort.
“Microsoft is joining forces with the BMW Group to transform digital production efficiency across the industry,” Scott Guthrie, executive vice president, Microsoft Cloud + AI Group, said in a presentation in Germany today. “Our commitment to building an open community will create new opportunities for collaboration across the entire manufacturing value chain.”
“Mastering the complex task of producing individualized premium products requires innovative IT and software solutions,” added Oliver Zipse, member of the Board of Management of BMW AG, Production, a statement. “The interconnection of production sites and systems as well as the secure integration of partners and suppliers are particularly important. We have been relying on the cloud since 2016 and are consistently developing new approaches. With the Open Manufacturing Platform as the next step, we want to make our solutions available to other companies and jointly leverage potential in order to secure our strong position in the market in the long term.”
The problem that Microsoft and BMW are going after here is a longstanding one. Much of the computing in the world of IT has been built around open standards, or in any event on very widely-used proprietary platforms that can interface with each other. The same does not go in the world of manufacturing, where proprietary systems are specific to each manufacturer, making them difficult to modify and often impossible to use in conjunction with other proprietary systems.
That ultimately slows down how things have been able to evolve, and will mean that implementing new generations of technology becomes expensive or even in some cases impossible. And given the speed with which things are moving, and the increasing sophistication of the machines that are being built (cars as “hardware”), something had to change.
That is what BMW and Microsoft are addressing. For BMW it will give it a hand in helping shape how standards develop, and for Microsoft it will give it a potential window into expanding its business in this enterprise sector.
The collaborative approach has been a big one for tech companies hoping to find a common way forward in the future of computing. Microsoft may own a lot of proprietary platforms that are not open source, but it’s making efforts to collaborate more in a number of other ways. It works with SAP, Adobe, WPP and others on the Open Data Initiative; with Intel, Google and others it’s working on an open standard for connecting data centers; it’s part of an open standard initiative for software licensing; and it’s part of a new cross-licensing patent database.