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Preparing manufacturing for the new normal

Greg Hookings, Head of Business Development – Digitalisation, Stratus Technologies, looks at how edge computing can prepare manufacturing for the new normal in a post covid-19 world.

The Covid-19 pandemic is changing the world, and many sectors, including manufacturing are seeing a host of new challenges as a result. Whilst business leaders are adjusting to new market conditions to meet the new normal, this actually presents a unique opportunity for businesses to take a comprehensive view of their operations and seek out improvements. Manufacturers are exploring digital technologies to transform their operations to reduce risk and future-proof production processes. Whether they are looking to optimise machine health or secure valuable data, manufacturers are looking simplify, protect and automate business-critical operations and many are looking to Edge Computing to help.

The opportunity to take stock and change operations goes even further than the plant-floor, and the opportunity to add capabilities and meet the challenges brought on by Covid-19 goes all the way to the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM). At a time when Digital Transformation is paramount to success, OEMs need to look towards Edge Computing, essentially building in future proofing and passing the benefits of that capability on to the customer.

What is the new normal?

Covid-19 has illuminated several aspects of manufacturing that will change in the new normal, especially concerning supply chains and availability. Manufacturers are advancing their digital transformation in response to the crisis and looking towards smart factories to protect themselves from global disruptions. And as we know, smarter factories need smarter equipment.

The industrial sector already sees its fair share of assets located away from the traditional data centre, and under the new normal, specific IT expertise might also be considered a remote asset. With social distancing in place and IT personnel working elsewhere, on-site operators can be compromised by the wait until help arrives. In this way, the new normal continues the trend of IT and OT convergence as those on-site will be expected to identify and rectify a problem without the IT personnel.

Digital transformation, future-proofing and intelligent automation are all goals of the current manufacturing facility owner, OEMs have the ability to package these capabilities through Edge Computing.

Smart factories are digitalised and connected plants are integrating supply chain solutions, optimising asset performance and improving overall efficiency through smart machines. The machines are equipped with IoT enabled sensors, intelligent controllers and HMI/SCADA systems. All of these elements are part of digital transformation and realising the full benefits of these technologies and ensuring their safe and reliable operation requires Edge Computing.

Edge computing for OEMs

Edge Computing is not just another element of digital transformation but fundamental to its success. Machine Builders need to build in an Edge Computing platform that meets the needs of the customer’s operational environment with three key words in mind; scalability, reliability and autonomy. Essentially future proofing their own products, OEMs can start small with a customer and scale up, bringing in new features and capabilities without the need for major design or architecture modification. 

Essential features

So what are the essential features OEMs should look for in Edge Computing? The starting point needs to be built-in virtualisation. This gives the machine builder the ability to combine traditional monitoring and control software with additional applications. Applications like data historians, MES, analytics and even AI solutions can all be running simultaneously under a single platform using multiple virtual machines. This is especially important under the new normal, with the simplified machine design thin clients can be installed, making the solution more flexible and giving operators the capability to run machines remotely using personal devices.

At a time when downtime can mean more than loss of profits but also reputational damage and equipment safety issues, your chosen Edge Computing platform needs redundancy. The best approach is to pair two platforms configured as a redundant pair so that if one node fails, the other node will take over – completely autonomously, without interrupting any applications.

The next thing your Edge Computing platform needs to be is protected. Whether your machine is far out in an offshore platform or inside a production facility, Machine Builders have a duty to conform to certain standards, specifically ISA/IEC 62443 guidelines. This means OEMs need to be looking for host-based firewalls, restricted USB ports, communication protocols and a secure and trusted boot.

As mentioned, the need for simplicity in the new normal is more important than ever. Whilst the worlds of IT and OT continue to converge, the high-level IT expertise normally reserved for the traditional data centre could be further away than ever.

For any OEM looking for an Edge Computing platform, the best approach is to develop it with three guiding principles; simple, protected and autonomous.

The OEM marketplace is highly competitive and whilst the new normal brings challenges to manufacturing, it also brings opportunity. Digitalisation is no longer a choice, manufacturers are looking to create smart factories and at the heart of this is smart machines. OEMs who want to separate themselves from the competition must not only achieve their own digital transformation but give their customers the tools to do so as well.

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