Cloud cover – helping manufacturers meet sustainability ambitions

At the recent Digital Manufacturing Week (DMW), The Manufacturer’s Joe Bush caught up 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 to remove its historic emissions by 2050. This signalled a raising of the bar for Microsoft regarding its sustainability ambitions and culminated with a set of commitments for the company to be carbon negative, water positive, zero waste, and protect more land than it uses by 2030.

Watch the interview here

Interview highlights

How much of a challenge will it be to fulfil Microsoft’s carbon ambitions?

For sure these ambitions are incredibly challenging. We don’t want to set expectations that this is going to be easy – if it was, people would have done it already. I think the time is now and there’s undoubtedly a sense of urgency around sustainability.

The difference between what we’re doing now, from what we might have done in the last ten years, is we’re concentrating not just on our own Scope 1 and 2 emissions – the core energy around our data centres, infrastructure and power – but we’re also extending that focus to Scope 3, to look at the entire supply chain.

However, we don’t have all the answers yet. We have a target, a commitment and a plan in place, and part of the carbon negativity pledge by 2030 (to take out of the atmosphere more carbon than we put in), is that we want to continue beyond 2030.

So, by 2050, we have made a commitment to take out all our historic carbon that we have put into the atmosphere since the company’s founding in 1975. That’s a big task and there’ll certainly have to be new technologies developed to be able to do that.

What strategy and roadmap is in place to achieve these goals?

I lead the cloud business for Microsoft in the UK, so the first thing is to move to the cloud. There are clear benefits around economies of scale, efficiencies of infrastructure, and what we wrap around our next generation data centres, such as green renewable energy. For example, we’ve made a commitment that all our data centres globally will use 100% renewables by 2025. And moving to the cloud is part of how we enable that.

However, that’s not enough. Part of the commitment is not just focussed on what we do with our technology, but how we provide that technology to others – to manufacturers, the finance industry, businesses big and small, the public sector, etc, to help them achieve their emissions targets and become more sustainable.

I think that partnership journey is really important because we can’t do it alone – we want to be sustainable and we want to learn best practice, but we all need to work together to achieve this.

What role will technology play on the journey to net zero?

As well as needing to work with others, we need technology in order to meet our sustainability goals – it’s not enough just to perform efficiency savings. For sure that will get us a long way, but we still need to use energy to perform a lot of the things we do today.

Moving to green energy will take some of the emissions away in that regards. However, one of our approaches is to become water positive. We want to provide more water back into the environment than we take out. To do that will require advances in technology. We will have to come up with new approaches and to think about how to do things differently.

So, there’s really two elements to technology. There’s the underlying cloud enabled platform, but further to that, what will be key is how we do clever things with data and AI, come up with new business models, and think about how we can perform carbon removal and other approaches that just don’t exist today. And those approaches will require technology to enable them.

As a manufacturer, how can cloud technology help me to be more sustainable?

The first recommendation I’d have is to look at your current infrastructure, and there’s a set of tools out there which can help. Microsoft, for example, has the Emissions Impact Dashboard which allows you to perform an inventory of your current infrastructure and the emissions that produces, and an assessment of how easily that could be moved to the cloud.

We’ve conducted a whole range of assessments to look at the reduction in carbon emissions and energy usage which can be achieved just by moving what is there today to the cloud. So, manufacturers big and small should do a sustainability assessment, look at their emissions, and then build a roadmap towards the cloud.

Moving to the cloud is one step, but then you will not only need to collect data on everything you do there, but also from your downstream supply chain. Once you’ve got that data, and you know what the impact is, you can then put new techniques and approaches in place to  manage it.

Is there a misconception among businesses that being sustainable will be costly?

Absolutely. The perception that you must pay to be sustainable is one I come up against every day. I talk to customers and partners all the time, and one of the regular roadblocks is that they say to me: “That’s going to cost us, and we’ll need to sacrifice some profit to be able to become sustainable”. It’s simply not true.

Even at the basic level of using core cloud services, there are business cases that we had well before we introduced sustainability-based ones, that showed the cloud is more cost effective than on-premises solutions.

Moving to the cloud allows you to reduce your costs, minimise CapEx and manage spikes in demand, so that you only need to pay for what you use, instead of buying lots of infrastructure that might sit idle for long periods.

The business case around dealing with these issues was often around cost. If you reduce your costs through the cloud, then that is reducing energy usage and compute power, so there’s a knock-on effect on sustainability. So, we fundamentally believe that the cost efficiency savings you can get from the cloud, correlates directly with sustainability goals – you don’t have to trade off one against the other.

How can Microsoft help?

I spoke about some case studies during my keynote at The Manufacturing Leaders’ Summit. Recycleye are a small London-based start-up who are using Azure Machine Learning, image recognition and cameras to increase the amount of recycling and reduce overall waste. This is a really good example of where technology has been used to do something innovative.

Rolls Royce is another. They’re working with our data platform and AI to perform simulations on engine efficiency. The more they can simulate different models and make tweaks to their engine design, the more it helps them to build more energy efficient engines and therefore, become more sustainable in the long-term. Those sorts of examples are the ones that I’m really passionate about – manufacturers using our technology platform in innovative ways.