Jim Connett, on October 21, 2021, 02:06 PM
Manufacturing in the Cloud?
The term “cloud computing” was first coined in an internal document by Compaq in 1996.1 Early implementations of cloud computing and online data storage were largely dysfunctional and had poor security which resulted in slow adoption and a deservedly negative reputation. The lack of an adoptable vision of cloud computing kept many large, multi-national companies on the sidelines as the technology matured. 25 years later, companies like Amazon and Google have fully embraced the cloud and offer cloud solutions with insane amounts of online storage and computing power at extremely low prices. The ever-growing hunger for power and storage in a connected world has forced companies to reconsider how the cloud – in part or in whole – can help them realize cost savings and efficiencies and keep them competitive in today’s every-dollar-counts environment. Not surprisingly, the inherent need for cloud-based solutions has been underscored by the shifting dynamics of business continuity in light of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic of the 2020s.
This brings us to an interesting question: given the advances in security and interconnectivity over the past few decades, is now a good time for manufacturers to move part – or all – of their IT infrastructure to the cloud? Should companies eschew the onsite storage array network as well as the acquisition and maintenance of hundreds of desktop computers in favor of all data stored in data centers and virtual machines spun up on-demand by employees? The answers are dependent on an accurate assessment of the current level of manufacturing automation, the constraints from external conditions, and the internal culture regarding data control. Let’s take a quick look at each dependency in turn.
How does the current level of manufacturing automation benefit from cloud computing?
The ideal automated manufacturing environment is what is called “lights-out” manufacturing. This represents a manufacturing paradigm where every action on the manufacturing floor is executed solely by automated processes and intelligent systems. Material movement, process decisions, recipe selection, material loading and unloading, statistical process control decisions – in a lights-out factory, no human intervention is required from start to finish. All process decisions are either handled by automated systems or controlled and monitored by engineers in another location. Essentially, the shop floor becomes the proverbial “black box” where raw materials go in on one side and a finished product comes out the other side. In short, the lights on the shop floor can be turned off and manufacturing will continue with precision and accuracy. It’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that lights-out manufacturing can require a huge amount of processing power and data storage which can be satisfied by cloud computing and cloud data storage. If the manufacturing processes are already automated to some degree, then cloud computing could be a viable next step. However, in situations where shop floor workers solder widgets or dip material by hand into chemical baths, then automating these manual processes first will yield a greater return and lay the foundation for cloud-based solutions.
What “utility” considerations must be factored into embracing the cloud?
Some manufacturing doesn’t lend itself to a cloud solution simply due to external conditions. The availability of reliable infrastructure and geo-political stability (for example) may prohibit data from leaving the manufacturing plant. The type of product line also plays a role. If you’re making die-cast plastic toy cars and trucks for five-year-olds, then a loss of connectivity is probably not a big deal. However, if you are making medical-grade parts like artificial knees or heart valves, then a loss of connectivity could easily mean a mis-manufactured part or missing traceability data, potentially leading to a loss of life! When cloud solutions are being considered, it is helpful to view the cloud as yet another “utility” needed for your site to produce products, just like water and electricity are probably needed. Business continuity plans must allow for alternatives during the loss of these common utilities and how those losses will impact the product; loss of network connectivity to data centers must also be considered.
Does the cloud approach fit with your company’s culture?
Culture also plays a huge role in the integration of cloud solutions. Just because it’s possible doesn’t mean it should be done. Companies are rightfully concerned about data security – both data in transit and data at rest. Intellectual property will be traversing the internet and will be stored in and replicated throughout data centers around the world. Some managers and corporate leaders will be more tolerant and accept the risks anytime data leaves the site. Others may not be able to sleep at night knowing data is essentially out of the full control of the company. As more companies and corporations leap to cloud-based solutions, those on the sidelines with a “wait and see” posture will be more likely to jump into the fray. However, both aggressive and conservative approaches are absolutely valid. Each should be seriously considered and discussed. Employing cloud-based solutions – for employees or systems – will uncover an array of issues specific to the company’s culture. A methodical and measured move to cloud solutions, good communication among all stakeholders, documented plans, and intense research into the internet “utility” provider and the data storage “utility” provider will pay off handsomely for years to come.