The UK proudly holds the position of being the eighth largest manufacturing nation in the world. According to The Manufacturers’ Organisation EEF, the UK manufacturing sector currently employs 2.6mn people, accounts for 44% of total exports and provides 13% of business investment. These figures are underpinned by an increasingly automated and technology-driven industry, which has come to rely on technologies such as nanotechnology, cloud computing and IoT to achieve increases in speed, customisation, precision and efficiency.
Factory floor employees who used to print off component lists for product assembly, now barcode scan for the designs and quickly locate parts in the warehouse. ‘Smart’ IoT sensors collect data about everything and feed that data into algorithms that can intelligently improve efficiency. We can see this through examples such as automatically adjusted temperature controls, vents, and the ability to automatically close blinds to minimise solar loss in unoccupied areas. In addition, these data-driven algorithms can simultaneously improve both safety and productivity, for example, by slowing machine speeds when workers approach, and increasing those same speeds, and thus production, when no one is close by. The productivity gains are immense, however, increased dependency on technology means storage, compute and servers all have to be lightning fast and super resilient. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
In many instances manufacturing businesses only contemplate edge computing as a solution to deliver the necessary speed and resilience once their legacy servers reach end-of-life. However, edge computing and cloud computing go hand-in-hand, and should really be at the forefront of thought for IT leaders.
This article discusses three benefits of edge computing and how it is further improving productivity in the manufacturing sector.
Factory production facilities need reliable on-premises edge computing resources that can gather and process IoT data and maintain production pace. Latency that arises from network bottlenecks or sluggish broadband connections to cloud-based data centres may provide suboptimal performance or introduce a layer of poor reliability that is unacceptable. If the link to the internet goes away, can the factory afford to stop production? Of course not. Sensors and algorithms must reach in real time, and therefore must exist within the factory itself, to avoid such outages.
That’s not to say that cloud-based computing doesn’t have a place in the manufacturing sector; far from it. Edge computing systems should integrate with cloud environments, to create a hybrid edge-cloud infrastructure. Applications, data, logs, and the like generated at the edge can and should be linked back to the cloud, whether private or public. Likewise, resources that exist primarily in the cloud should be tied back to the edge, to ensure production continues even if the cloud disappears for a time.
Beyond bandwidth and latency, transferring data between manufacturing factory sites, across states or between countries potentially exposes businesses to cyber-attacks and increases the risk of security breaches. Laws and regulations can vary from country to country, making this an even more complex problem for global manufacturers. A proper edge-cloud hybrid environment can help here.
For manufacturing companies with multiple sites, virtualised edge computing resources also provide the means to strengthen disaster recovery strategies by replicating and mirroring data between each of the different sites over a private, secure network. An environment that spans from edge-to-cloud as one unifed system can greatly simplify the security by having a homogeneous environment at both ends (what provides security at the edge also works in the cloud, and vice versa). In this way, manufacturers can create the kind of strong framework that is essential for full enterprise security, regulatory compliance, and audits.
Edge computing also opens the doors to cost-effective IoT adoption and deployment. Until now, many companies in the sector have resisted full-scale IoT adoption because of the upfront costs associated with network bandwidth, data storage and processing power. This has been further complicated by differing proprietary control and management mechanisms from IoT vendors.
Edge computing offers a cost-effective way to scale up IoT adoption, by providing a standard platform for running applications as virtual machines or containers, and can provide the high-availability those applications demand without being housed in a traditional data centre. Only by streamlining in this way can the full value of the edge be obtained, as the edge is not one location, but likely many small deployments, each being a full IT infrastructure in and of itself.
Edge computing solutions also contribute towards cost savings because they are designed to run autonomously - unlike full data centre implementations, they are small enough to run without dedicated IT staff at each site; the infrastructure is easy to implement and a single IT professional can manage it remotely. This saves on headcount, but also keeps IT-related travel costs between sites to a minimum.
Poised for high growth in the future, edge computing will dramatically improve daily operations for many industries, especially manufacturing. The expectation in the near future is that more factories and plants will adopt edge computing because of its ease of use, tooling and low latency. It’s tempting to think that edge computing might even replace the cloud, particularly as many IT professionals believe that a cloud-only model is not as effective for them. But we don’t see it as edge ‘versus’ the cloud; it’s more like edge ‘and’ the cloud. While edge computing has key advantages for the manufacturing sector, including local computation and faster decision-making, the cloud brings the power of large data set computation, predictive and machine learning and artificial intelligence algorithms. Used in conjunction with the right applications and hardware, edge computing and the cloud can produce a powerful and streamlined IT solution for companies in the manufacturing sector.