Jonathan Wilkins examines how cloud computing is disrupting industrial automation
Traditionally, the manufacturing industry has been slow to embrace new technological platforms, but in recent years the introduction and success of cloud computing has meant this technology is becoming vital for manufacturers.
One of the most notable changes in industry over the past years has come from advancements in remote connectivity. Traditionally, the location of manufacturing facilities was determined by ready access to water, fossil fuels or electricity grids. Today, the cloud allows manufacturers to connect and manage factory operations regardless of their location.
For demanding environments, such as the offshore oil and gas sector, this remote access is particularly valuable. The industry handles large amounts of data, usually sourced from multiple teams in remote locations. Cloud computing enables the communication of complex data between these locations and back to head office to be analysed.
What’s more, as opposed to simply managing their own operations, cloud computing allows manufacturers to manage their partners too. By working closely together and sharing business data with third party suppliers, logistics partners and other associates or manufacturers can form what is known as a ‘community cloud’. This advanced form of cloud computing allows businesses to gain insight to their entire supply chain and creates a secure platform for business partners coordinate their activities, from prototype right through to the finalised product.
Inevitably, with increased access and connectivity comes a higher security risk for manufacturers. These cyber security risks are not necessarily the work of malicious hackers, but can often be simple mistakes made by employees, such as connecting via unsecure networks, exposing the system to viruses or accidental breaches.
Despite these risks, manufacturers have few alternatives that can compete with cloud computing. Without the help of the technology, manufacturers would have to maintain expensive computing hardware and continually add more storage space to archive the ever-growing data from the factory floor.
For many manufacturers, opting for the cloud is a no-brainer. Cloud computing is capable of performing large-scale, complex computing operations for the largest of manufacturers. Even in the unfortunate event that you run out of computing resources on the cloud - a phenomenon known as ‘cloud bursting’ - manufacturers are able to spill the excess workload to an external cloud on an on-demand basis, making cloud computing a much safer and more secure alternative to in-house storage.
Despite these obvious advantages, cloud computing goes far beyond simple data storage. Many industry experts think the Internet of Things (IoT) is the next step towards the fourth industrial revolution or Industry 4.0. IoT simply refers to online connectivity between different industrial devices, meaning that networks of machines within a factory setting can communicate and coordinate with little human intervention.
But how can IoT possibly thrive without ways to analyse and store the data generated? This is where cloud computing comes in. As manufacturers are forced to embrace new technology such as smart sensors, IoT and 3D printing, the cloud works to support these major industry shifts.
Jonathan Wilkins is marketing director of industrial automation supplier European Automation.