by Clint Boulton

Mars sweetens supply chain with digital twin

Jun 11, 2021
AnalyticsDigital TransformationSupply Chain

The confectionery, pet care, and food company is partnering with Microsoft to replicate its manufacturing operations digitally, a twinning task designed to optimize its supply chain.

Sandeep Dadlani, chief digital officer, Mars
Credit: Mars

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.

A key ingredient of Mars’ 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’ chief digital officer, who is leading a transformation that includes democratizing access to AI and other digital capabilities to help employees work more efficiently.

“We see digital as a massive business accelerator,” Dadlani says of the strategy to digitize operations for the $40 billion maker of M&Ms, Snickers, and dozens of other products. “We’re not doing digital for digital’s sake.”

Digital strategy requires reliable partners 

Mars’ play with Microsoft is the latest in a long line of strategic deals — Land O’Lakes and Johnson Controls recently forged similar ties with Team Azure — 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.

Such 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.

Bolstering 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.

Mars is using Microsoft’s Azure Digital Twins IoT service to augment operations across its 160 manufacturing facilities, with help from Accenture’s 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 “app store of use cases” that may be reused across its business lines.

In 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.

The work builds on earlier work Mars undertook with Microsoft. At the outbreak’s 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.

“Microsoft stood out because it had fundamentals for cloud-first tooling, engineering, and talent,” says Dadlani, adding that he selected Microsoft based on share cultural values and principles after evaluating other cloud platform vendors.

Members of Mars’ digital team have made several visits to Microsoft’s 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 — all virtual for now — to collaborate on the use of advanced technologies to expedite time to market for direct-to-consumer initiatives, sustainability efforts, and digital product innovation.

Culture change and reskilling go hand in hand

The Mars-Microsoft collaboration comes more than three years into a transformation that has been as much about changing Mars’ 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.

In 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.

Far from “flash in the pan pilots,” most of these solutions are currently running at scale, Dadlani says.

“If you can define a problem very well, you should feel empowered to solve it using AI.”

In 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 — as long as it happens quickly and staff can “learn from failure to apply it to future successes,” Dadlani says.