At Digital Manufacturing Week (DMW), Joe Bush from The Manufacturer met with Michael Wignall, Azure Business Group Lead, Microsoft to find out how cloud technology can make sustainability a reality.
In January 2020, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, President Brad Smith and CFO Amy Hood announced the company’s bold commitment to be carbon negative by 2030 and eliminate its historic emissions by 2050. This signaled a rise in the bar for Microsoft on its sustainability ambitions, culminating in a series of commitments for the company to be carbon negative, water positive, and waste-free by 2030, and to protect more land than it uses.
Watch the interview here
How big is the challenge of fulfilling Microsoft’s carbon ambitions?
Surely these ambitions are incredibly challenging. We don’t want to raise expectations that this will be easy – if it had been, people would have already done it. I think the time has now come and there is undoubtedly a sense of urgency about sustainability.
The difference between what we are doing now and what we may have done in the last decade is that we are not just focusing on our own Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions – nuclear power around about our data centers, infrastructure and power – but we’re also expanding this focus to Scope 3 to look at the entire supply chain.
We don’t have all the answers yet, however. We have a goal, a commitment and a plan, and part of the promise of carbon negativity by 2030 (removing more carbon from the atmosphere than we put in) is that we want to continue beyond 2030.
Therefore, by 2050, we are committed to removing all of our historical carbon that we have released into the atmosphere since the company was founded in 1975. This is a big task and new technology will certainly have to be developed to do this.
What is the strategy and roadmap to achieve these goals?
I run the cloud business for Microsoft in the UK so the first is to move to the cloud. There are clear benefits in terms of economies of scale, infrastructure efficiency, and what we’re wrapping around our next-generation data centers, such as green renewable energy. For example, we have committed to using 100% renewable energy in all of our data centers around the world by 2025. And moving to the cloud is part of how we make this possible.
But that’s not enough. Part of the engagement is focused not only on what we do with our technology, but also on how we make that technology available to others – manufacturers, the financial industry, businesses large and small, the public sector, etc. to help them to meet their emissions targets and become more sustainable.
I think the partnership path is really important because we cannot do it alone – we want to be sustainable and we want to learn best practices, but we all have to work together to make it happen.
What role will technology play on the path to net zero?
Not only do we need to work with others, we also need to work with technology to meet our sustainability goals – it is not enough to just make efficiency savings. This will certainly get us far, but we still have to expend energy doing many of the things that we are doing today.
Switching to green energy will reduce some of the emissions in this regard. However, one of our approaches is to go water positive. We want to add more water to the environment than we take out. This requires technological advances. We will have to find new approaches and think about how we can do things differently.
So there are really two elements to technology. There’s the underlying cloud-enabled platform, but beyond that, how we do smart things with data and AI, develop new business models, and think about how we can do carbon elimination and other approaches that just don’t work will be crucial . t there today. And these approaches require technology to make them possible.
How can cloud technology help me as a manufacturer to be more sustainable?
The first recommendation I would have would be to look at your current infrastructure, and there are a number of tools that can help you. Microsoft offers, for example, the Emissions Impact Dashboard, with which you can take stock of your current infrastructure and the emissions that are generated and assess how easily these could be moved to the cloud.
We conducted a number of assessments to investigate the reduction in CO2 emissions and energy consumption that can be achieved simply by moving today’s inventory to the cloud. Therefore, large and small manufacturers should carry out a sustainability assessment, examine their emissions and then create a roadmap towards the cloud.
Moving to the cloud is a step, but then you need to collect data not only on everything you do there, but also from your downstream supply chain. Once you have this data and understand the implications, you can use new techniques and approaches to manage it.
Is there a misunderstanding among companies that sustainability will be expensive?
Absolutely. The idea that you have to pay for sustainability is one I am confronted with every day. I speak to customers and partners all the time, and one of the regular obstacles is that they tell me: “It costs us and we have to forego profit to become sustainable”. It’s just not true.
Even at the basic level of using core cloud services, there are business cases that we had long before the introduction of sustainability-based services that showed that the cloud is more cost-effective than local solutions.
Moving to the cloud enables you to lower your costs, minimize capital expenditures, and handle spikes in demand so that you only have to pay for what you use instead of buying a lot of infrastructure that may be idle for long periods of time.
Often times, when dealing with these issues, it was about cost. When you reduce your costs through the cloud, you reduce energy consumption and computing power, which has a negative impact on sustainability. We therefore fundamentally believe that the cost savings you can achieve through the cloud are directly correlated with sustainability goals – you don’t have to trade off against each other.
How can Microsoft help?
I attended during my keynote. talked about some case studies The summit of manufacturing leaders. Recycleye is a small start-up based in London that uses Azure machine learning, image recognition and cameras to increase recycling rates and reduce overall waste. This is a really good example of where technology has been used to do something innovative.
Rolls-Royce is a different one. You will work with our data platform and AI to run simulations on engine efficiency. The more you can simulate different models and optimize your motor design, the more it helps you to build more energy-efficient motors and thus become more sustainable in the long term. It is such examples that really inspire me – manufacturers who use our technology platform in innovative ways.