Several reference architecture initiatives in the manufacturing area started at Microsoft more than two years ago. The first of these initiatives was the Smart Energy Reference Architecture (SERA), followed by the Microsoft Upstream Reference Architecture (MURA). Early this year, the Discrete Reference Architecture Framework (DiRA) was announced at the Hanover Fair in Germany, and the vision for a Chemical Reference Architecture (ChemRA) was released last month. 

Although this post focuses on the reasons for having the ChemRA initiative, many of these reasons also apply to the other reference architectures.  Before we dive into these reasons, you may be wondering what the scope of ChemRA is. Well, ChemRA covers the chemical industry, including basic chemicals, specialty chemicals, petrochemicals, as well as oil refining. And, now on to the need for ChemRA...

Many business and economic trends are forcing chemical manufacturers to find new efficiencies in production planning, design, and execution. Increasingly complex supply chain systems that span the world require new efficient ways for people to communicate and collaborate. The need to bring products to market quicker and cut down on the design time also requires more collaboration and greater business insight. Handling the mountains of data collected in the different stages of the manufacturing process and gleaning the needed information that would help make the right decisions at the right time by all people in the organization based on their roles is becoming one of the most important goals for manufacturing customers. Chemical manufacturers also have to deal with the added burden of complying with more regulations in the areas of health, safety, and environment. All of that while the demographics of manufacturing population in general is changing gradually with many skilled workers approaching retirement with little documentation of their skills and knowledge, while new younger workers are more eager to use technological means, such as handheld devices, touch screens, etc. in their daily work.

Adding to this is the complex technical environment within chemical manufacturing organizations where these organizations acquired many applications over the years, or built others in-house using different technologies and platforms, some of which are very old and difficult to support. Such applications usually run in silos and integrating them requires costly, in some cases non-maintainable, point-to-point solutions. This makes it difficult to execute business processes that often span multiple applications some of which may be outside the organization boundaries. Also, some applications were inherited as a result of mergers and acquisitions that became more common in the recent decade due to the overall macroeconomic environment. All of this adds to the complexity and challenges of managing IT systems in the enterprise, and more so at plant levels.

The technical challenges above resulted in degraded user experience as end users find themselves having to learn multiple interfaces and navigate their way through complex screens and menus to reach the desired functionality in these different applications. These challenges also resulted in poor collaboration among people on different teams across the organizations and poor insight into the operations and peer experiences in different plants or parts of the organization.

Microsoft technology and products are used by most solution providers in the general manufacturing space, including chemical manufacturing. These providers along with their customers turned to Microsoft asking for help to alleviate these challenges. ChemRA is an initiative in which Microsoft takes the lead role in working with its partners and with chemical manufacturing customers to address these issues and find solutions for them. ChemRA will address these issues through its main principles: enhanced user experience, great business insight, enhanced collaboration, easier standards-based interoperability, and solid secure, reliable infrastructure.

Stay tuned for subsequent posts as we dive into these principle in more detail.