Why Every Manufacturer Can Think in 'The Cloud'

Cloud-based Computing Can Help Alleviate Constrained IT Bandwidth, Dated Infrastructure and Limited Application Engineering Resources

By Ted Hill

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Does your organization view the cloud as technology for the future? Or a sophisticated networking and industrial computing prospect available only to large enterprise? It's time to rethink what's possible now. Every manufacturer – especially small- and mid-size operations that feel constrained by IT bandwidth, infrastructure assets and application engineering resources – can confidently make the move to cloud-based computing.

This article proposes key drivers that make moving to the cloud a fundamental transition instead of an exotic undertaking. It also explores the characteristics that enable a manufacturer to deploy a cloud network for storing, accessing, sharing and leveraging data from Internet-connected devices.

  1. Exploiting the cloud is less intimidating from a resources perspective. Tapping into the benefits of cloud computing is significantly more manageable and routine than it was even a few years ago. Previously, only large-scale manufacturers could allocate and maintain investments in infrastructure, licensing, training, engineering and security necessary to implement and operate enterprise wide applications. Sustaining those applications in the face of constantly changing manufacturing environments was a continuous challenge.

    Today the cloud is exciting and opportunity-rich because every organization can harness the technology to achieve more powerful automation, networking and "smart" production.

  2. Boundary-dissolving technologies redefine what is possible. Boundary-eliminating wireless and broadband communication is ubiquitous. Until recently, a significant obstacle was access to the network. Connectivity anytime and anywhere – combined with the mobile processing power carried in smart phones and tablets – puts cloud-based solutions within closer and easier reach. Meanwhile, Industrial Internet Protocol (IP) networking structure and industrial, unmodified Ethernet are seamlessly connecting conventional automation equipment  (I/O, drives) with IP-enabled digital devices adopted from other disciplines (video, security).

    This harmonious coexistence and end-to-end connectivity among devices, processes, systems and people – combined with cost-efficient cloud computing muscle – is transforming industrial expectations.

  3. Declining costs lower the threshold for justifying high-end capability. Utilizing a unified, IP-centric networking infrastructure to optimize interoperability lowers the cost of exponential increases in processing power, storage and bandwidth. Making it realistic for manufacturers (of any size) to affordably access multiple, aggregated sources of data stored in the cloud.

    Remote monitoring and support, for example, have been deployed for more than a decade. Typically by larger operations facing a performance challenges extreme enough to justify the capital investments in hardware and dedicated hi-speed communication links. Cloud-based solutions drive hardware and software infrastructure costs towards zero, continually lowering the threshold to deploy advanced automation.

  4. Concerns over security of data in the cloud are unwarranted. "We could never allow our manufacturing data to go into a public cloud." The perspective is prevalent. But security perceptions – as evidenced by the delicate nature of data routinely entrusted to public and provide clouds across a range of industries – differ from reality. In fact, it's not even necessary to contrast manufacturer reluctance with cloud-sophisticated industries like banking or healthcare. The production team may be reluctant to manufacturing related data in the cloud may not realize that other parts of the company are already utilizing a variety of cloud based applications.

In addition, utilizing standard, unmodified IP, such as EtherNet/IP network, actually makes security one of the lesser cloud challenges. Compared to security development for a proprietary protocol, the open standard capitalizes on a much broader application engineering community focused on ensuring that data is fully protected as it flows from devices up into the cloud and back to the production site.

'Remote Asset Monitoring' Makes the Case for Cloud Computing

The increasing sophistication of remote systems monitoring, asset management and engineering support demonstrates how cloud technology facilitates IP-enabled "intelligent enterprise" advances in plant-floor security, connectivity, performance and ease of integration. A mission-critical production asset like a medium-voltage drive illustrates the point. A non-functioning drive on an oil & gas drilling platform, for example, can result in a significant loss of revenue.

Given that risk, energy companies are well-established remote management and support services users. But traditional IT solutions consume capital and related technical resources at levels unique to large-enterprise operations. The cloud-based computing that is taking significant cost and complexity out of those equations enables manufacturing operations on virtually any scale to deploy 24/7 monitoring of valuable drive applications.

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