Three ways that edge computing can benefit manufacturing
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.
- Disaster recovery, speed and resiliency
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.
- GE announces the launch of $1.2bn industrial IoT software business
- Mitsubishi Motors reenters its partnership with Nissan and Renault
- Orchard Therapeutics reveals its plans to build-out a gene therapy manufacturing facility
- Security and compliance
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.
- Lower costs
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.
IMF: Variants Can Still Hurt Manufacturing Recovery
After a year of on-and-off manufacturing in the US, UK, and the eurozone, demand for goods surged early last week. Factories set growth records in April and May, suppliers started to recover, and US crude hit its highest price point since pre-COVID. As vaccination efforts immunise much of the US and UK populations, manufacturers are now able to fully ramp up their supply chains. In fact, GDP growth could approach double-digits by 2022.
Now, the ISM productivity measure has surpassed the 50-point mark that separates industry expansion from contraction. Since U.S. president Biden passed his US$1.9tn stimulus package and the UK purchasing managers index (PMI) increased to 65.6, both sides of the Atlantic are facing a much-welcomed manufacturing recovery.
Lingering Concerns Over COVID
Even as Spain, France, Italy, and Germany race to catch up, and mining companies pushed the FTSE 100 index of list shares to a monthly high of 7,129, some say that UK and US markets still suffer from a lack of confidence in raw material supplies. Yes, the Dow Jones has made up its 19,173-point crash of March 2020, and MSCI’s global stock index is at an all-time high.
Yet manufacturers around the world realise that these wins will be short-lived until pandemic supply chain bottlenecks are solved. If we keep the status quo, consumers will pay the price. In April, inflation in Germany reached 2.4%, and across the EU’s 19 member countries, overall prices have increased at an unusual pace. Some ask: Is this true recovery?
IMF: Current Boom Could Falter
Even as Elon Musk tweeted about chip shortages forcing Tesla to raise its prices, UK mining demand skyrocketed; housing markets lifted; and the pound sterling gained value. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), however, cautioned that manufacturing recovery won’t last long if COVID mutates into forms our vaccinations can’t touch. Kristalina Georgieva, Washington’s IMF director, noted that fewer than 1% of African citizens have been vaccinated: “Worldwide access to vaccines offers the best hope for stopping the coronavirus pandemic, saving lives, and securing a broad-based economic recovery”.
Across the globe, manufacturing companies are keeping a watchful eye on new developments in the spread of COVID. Though US FDA officials don’t think we’ll have to “start at square one” with new vaccines, the March 2021 World Economic Outlook states that “high uncertainty” surrounds the projected 6% global growth. Continued manufacturing success will in large part depend on “the path of the pandemic, the effectiveness of policy support, and the evolution of financial conditions”.
Mathias Cormann, secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) concurred—without global immunisation, the estimated economic boom expected by 2025 could go kaput. “We need to...pursue an all-out effort to reach the entire world population”, Australia’s finance minister added. US$50bn to end COVID across the world, they imply, is a small investment to restart our economies.