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The time for the industrial cloud is now

Nov. 12, 2021

“The question is on the top of everybody’s mind, especially among our customers,” began Brian Shepherd, senior vice president of software and control at Rockwell Automation. “Is now the tipping point for cloud and manufacturing?”

Where manufacturing has traditionally been a laggard to adopting digital technology, Shepherd said at a media brief at this week’s Automation Fair, manufacturing’s lag with respect to cloud adoption is changing rapidly in the current market, as the benefits are hard to ignore.

Rockwell Automation believes so strongly in the movement to cloud and the development of software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions that it acquired two companies over the past year to facilitate it. First, Rockwell Automation acquired Fiix in December 2020, and two months ago the acquisition of Plex was the single largest acquisition in the company’s history. Plex is a leader in cloud-native smart manufacturing solutions, operating in 2,400 plants in 37 different countries and processing around 8.5 billion transactions per day. Fiix provides a cloud-native computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) platform, powered by artificial intelligence (AI).

The pandemic has helped accelerated cloud adoption in the manufacturing space dramatically in a short amount of time. Bill Berutti, chief executive officer of Plex, said that three to four years ago, he had to explain what the cloud was to companies. “We were spending a lot of time defending the cloud vs. on-prem,” Berutti said. “In the past year and a half, the conversation has completely flipped to where now, customers are looking for cloud solutions, demanding cloud solutions, and the pandemic shined a spotlight on it.”

Plants that couldn’t remotely access enterprise systems during the pandemic were crippled. So, combined with the worker shortage driving the need for more automation, “the cloud is now, and it’s just an incredible opportunity to be part of Rockwell to realize the benefits of this opportunity right at the moment where the inflection is occurring,” Berutti added.

James Novak, chief executive officer of Fiix, has also seen the pandemic accelerate the adoption of remote engineering and robotics. Many that didn’t invest in that infrastructure before the pandemic struggled, and if they wanted to remedy problems post-COVID, they need quick solutions. “We thought about speed of deployment and time to value as the critical things, which cloud can deliver,” Novak said. “The other part that became really apparent during COVID was integration.” Workers need to log in remotely and access IT data and OT data. “The cloud really accelerates the ability to integrate systems,” Novak said.

Time to value is accelerated with cloud without the need for many the steps involved in on-prem enterprise software deployment, including acquisition and commissioning of hardware and software systems, together with the people and training to administer those systems. “The commissioning and roll out and piloting that are required for quality assurance of software systems on-site is no longer required,” Shepherd said. “That’s the beauty of using software as a utility from the cloud.”

Many plants don’t have large corporate IT teams to execute a digital transformation, Berutti said. “The power of SaaS is you don’t need the corporate IT team,” he added.

Cloud also has many benefits beyond skirting pandemic restrictions and accelerating time to value, such as helping industry collaboration. The automation industry has a somewhat unique business model, Shepherd said. “We have OEM machine builders who are both partners and customers, who then move that product down to the end user,” he said. There has always been collaboration there, he added, but it hasn’t always been the “smoothest of operations.” Cloud technology, Sheppard said, enables industry collaboration in a “more graceful way.”

Cloud also enables the use of data and the power of analytics to optimize production. “When that data is trapped in the silo of an individual on-premise application or device, there’s really no value to be had from that data, so liberating it to the cloud really enables it to be used for analytics and machine learning,” Shepherd said.

When companies are overwhelmed by the prospect of the digital journey, cloud can help them begin slowly. Berutti said his company takes a value-based approach with customers “to identify where their greatest source of pain or business improvement opportunity is.” That could mean a full plant overhaul or a more granular approach, such as focusing specifically on a supply chain management challenge, or quality or production issue. “We can help identify the greatest source of business value and very quickly implement something that delivers a quick return on investment,” Berutti said. “That then creates the opportunity to move on and find the next source of value.”

Novak said that about 80 percent of industry is still tracking maintenance activities on pen and paper. But once companies digitalize data and processes, analytics can help them start improving performance. Integrating cloud solutions for IT and OT systems together with maintenance workflow data make “applied AI” possible, resulting in more efficient maintenance, Novak said. Fiix’s three AI products for parts prediction; work order insights to detect problems with jobs; and anomaly detection for asset failure need data collaboration and system integration.

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“What we’ve seen is that organizations no longer want to buy software in the big bulky way,” Novak said. “Rather, they want to start small, create successes and build on that success--expanding from one part of the plant to the next, then to multiple facilities to multiple divisions to multiple geographies. Taking customers through the journey is really important.”

Some might question the security of the cloud. “The irony is, the cloud is more secure,” Berutti said. He told the story of a client, a large automotive supplier, that had its data stolen and encrypted for ransom last week. “The only system that wasn’t affected was Plex because there was no way for the hackers to get to the Plex data. They were able to continue to run their plants because Plex was still running. The cloud is absolutely secure,” he added.

No matter company size or industry, the cloud has solutions that can be deployed more quickly and easily than on-prem solutions. With Rockwell’s Automation’s newest additions to its SaaS-based solution, FactoryTalk Hub, the company has further confirmed that now is the time for cloud in manufacturing.        

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