In the race to optimize manufacturing capabilities, more companies are turning to digital twins. These virtual clones of their physical operations can help them simulate scenarios that would be too time consuming or expensive to test with physical assets. On that score, Mars is working with Microsoft to craft a digital twin of its manufacturing supply chain in support of its confectionery, pet care, and food businesses.\nA key ingredient of Mars\u2019 strategy hinges on implementing Microsoft Azure cloud and artificial intelligence (AI) software to process and analyze data generated by production machines in manufacturing facilities, says Sandeep Dadlani, Mars\u2019 chief digital officer, who is leading a transformation that includes democratizing access to AI and other digital capabilities to help employees work more efficiently.\n[ Be sure to learn the secrets of highly effective digital transformations \u2014 and beware the 7 myths of digital transformation. | Get the latest on digital transformation by signing up for our CIO Leader newsletters. ]\n\u201cWe see digital as a massive business accelerator,\u201d Dadlani says of the strategy to digitize operations for the $40 billion maker of M&Ms, Snickers, and dozens of other products. \u201cWe\u2019re not doing digital for digital\u2019s sake.\u201d\nDigital strategy requires reliable partners\u00a0 \nMars\u2019 play with Microsoft is the latest in a long line of strategic deals \u2014 Land O\u2019Lakes and Johnson Controls recently forged similar ties with Team Azure \u2014 that have traditional enterprises partnering with cloud providers to modernize their operations. The collective thinking is: Done properly, the cloud can afford greater agility to make critical changes while decreasing the need to rack and stack hardware.\nSuch nimbleness is essential for Mars, as its diversified portfolio faces steep competition on several fronts. Sixty-seven percent of IT leaders say they are doubling down on digital technology as a competitive differentiator amid the pandemic, according to new research from McKinsey. Moreover, McKinsey found that top economic performers were more likely to forge partnerships and invest in innovation in pursuit of growth.\nBolstering supply chains to accommodate evolving business requirements is increasingly viewed as a competitive advantage, particularly as the pandemic has rendered the timely delivery of goods anything but assured.\nMars is using Microsoft\u2019s Azure Digital Twins IoT service to augment operations across its 160 manufacturing facilities, with help from Accenture\u2019s digital manufacturing and operations consultants. The company will create software simulations to improve capacity and process controls, including boosting the uptime of machines via predictive maintenance and reducing waste associated with machines packaging inconsistent product quantities. Using the digital twin construct, Mars can also generate a virtual \u201capp store of use cases\u201d that may be reused across its business lines.\nIn the future, Mars plans to use the digital twin data to take into account climate and other situational considerations when creating products and to establish greater visibility into its supply chain from product origination to the consumer.\nThe work builds on earlier work Mars undertook with Microsoft. At the outbreak\u2019s onset, Mars began using Microsoft Teams paired with RealWear headsets in its manufacturing facilities to help front-line workers consult with experts as they maintained machines. It also leveraged the videoconferencing software to facilitate telehealth veterinary visits for pets as part of its pet-care business, Dadlani says.\n\u201cMicrosoft stood out because it had fundamentals for cloud-first tooling, engineering, and talent,\u201d says Dadlani, adding that he selected Microsoft based on share cultural values and principles after evaluating other cloud platform vendors.\nMembers of Mars\u2019 digital team have made several visits to Microsoft\u2019s executive briefing center in recent years; Microsoft engineers have repaid the favor by visiting Mars to discuss co-innovation possibilities. The companies have also established an innovation lab \u2014 all virtual for now \u2014 to collaborate on the use of advanced technologies to expedite time to market for direct-to-consumer initiatives, sustainability efforts, and digital product innovation.\nCulture change and reskilling go hand in hand\nThe Mars-Microsoft collaboration comes more than three years into a transformation that has been as much about changing Mars\u2019 culture for 133,000 employees as it has been about ensuring that they have access to the latest digital tools, Dadlani says. More than 30,000 employees have trained up on analytics and more than 17,000 have taken courses to learn more about design thinking, which is how Mars approaches product development.\nIn October, Mars launched Treat Town, a virtual trick-or-treating experience for consumers. And in December, Mars convened a virtual AI Festival in which employees celebrated 200 AI use cases deployed across various business lines, including diagnostics software for its pet-care business to help understand underlying disease conditions and applications to establish product pricing and promotions in stores and online.\nFar from \u201cflash in the pan pilots,\u201d most of these solutions are currently running at scale, Dadlani says.\n\u201cIf you can define a problem very well, you should feel empowered to solve it using AI.\u201d\nIn fact, Mars encourages employees to consider solving problems using AI and other emerging technologies where it makes sense, part of the culture change in which associates are enriching and amplifying themselves through reskilling. With so many experiments under way in AI and other tech segments, failure is expected, even encouraged \u2014 as long as it happens quickly and staff can \u201clearn from failure to apply it to future successes,\u201d Dadlani says.