November/December 2011
Automation IT

Is the cloud right for manufacturing?

Fast Forward

  • What is the cloud, and can it really help?
  • The cloud can deliver real-time data and dashboards right to a user's smart phone, helping to improve cross-enterprise collaboration, data analysis, and reaction time.
  • Cloud computing allows manufacturers to model, execute, analyze, and improve their business processes by making them repeatable, enforceable, and traceable-it is workflow in the cloud.
 
By Maryanne Steidinger

There is much discussion these days on whether cloud-based technology is "right" for manufacturing. Given the security concerns, what applications should manufacturers look for to help them get started? And, more importantly, why should they even care about the cloud?

auto1Let's begin with the basics. First of all, what is the cloud? Gartner, Inc., a leading information technology research and advisory company, defines cloud computing as "a style of computing where scalable and elastic IT capabilities are provided as a service to multiple customers using Internet technologies." That is as good and as concise a definition as any. Cloud computing works like a computer operating system, managing multiple applications across a shared, Internet-based software and hardware infrastructure.

The Active Server Page (ASP) model of the early 2000s was somewhat of a precursor to the cloud: Application Service Providers hosted software, maintained the infrastructure, and provided access through an Internet browser. Normally, ASPs were single-focus. For example, an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) were popularly hosted applications because they had similar characteristics of use: they had a large end-user population, served different departmental needs (e.g., operations versus warehouse versus quality), and could quickly be implemented, upgraded, and distributed. The need to conform to specific requirements needed to be maintained without imposing a huge burden on an organization's infrastructure and have the flexibility to be reconfigured on demand were among the attractions of the ASP value proposition. Unfortunately, a lot of the demand was driven by the technology craze of the 2000s, when the telecommunications market demand was growing faster than supply, and outsourcing of manufacturing drove the need for "remote viewing" of OEMs to ensure progress to plan and order fulfillment. When the market broke, the ASP model went down with it.

Now, let's fast forward to the 2010s. The shortage of knowledge workers, reduction in workforces, and consistent constraint on capital are driving the cloud to maturity. This "virtual operating system" environment offers companies the ability to inexpensively host software, easier access for users, and scalability without bounds. But the cloud still has a stigma of uncertainty for manufacturers, who are still reeling from the security breaches of a few years ago, when hackers were able to attack industrial control applications (HMIs and DCS/PLC systems) via the Stuxnet worm.

What has developed are a number of cloud-based services and products that are beginning to bring the power and infrastructure of the cloud into a form factor that has been created specifically for manufacturers. These software services use the cloud for reporting, training, and application hosting. Mobile reporting, web-based dashboards, industrial business process management (BPM), and workflow automation are areas in which manufacturers are already benefitting from the cloud.

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Mobile reporting of real-time plant data on smart devices

What is easier to use than your mobile phone or tablet PC? The interface is designed for simple interaction, the graphics are pleasing and intuitive, and most importantly, the information is there on-demand, when you need it, and in the context of your search. The newest mobile reporting applications use the cloud to host your real-time data, and push back to you reports and analytics that are based on the data you've stored. The services they provide do the heavy lifting, providing application hosting and highly secure data storage while also enabling the user to simply interact with their data as desired.
The benefits are many and include scalability, reduced IT load, flexibility to expand cost-effectively as the user network enlarges, and the ability to access a heterogeneous mix of application databases for extraction and analysis.

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Interactive, web-based dashboards

Another level of analysis and decision-making support is emerging as a follow on to the smart device reporting, and it is cloud-ready. Enterprise Manufacturing Intelligence (EMI) takes mobile device reporting one step further by creating a data structure that compares elements prior to display. It allows users to ask "what if" questions, and creates multi-dimensional reports that can access information residing in various applications-ERP, MES, data historians-and to put structured queries together, keeping the query in place while data is updated in near real time. Think of it as the second generation of reporting. EMI products report on key performance indicators, which help companies drill down to understand underlying factors in plant or operations behavior, such as a drop in yields, increase in energy consumption, or persistent downtime in a single production line. Such reports help train new employees by providing if-then and cause-and-effect scenarios based on real-time operating data.

Industrial BPM/workflow

Another manufacturing/plant-floor application that takes extremely well to the cloud is business process management. BPM takes processes and makes them repeatable, enforceable, and traceable by allowing manufacturers to model, execute, analyze, and improve their processes. Measurable results are essential for organizations that have compliance requirements, a high degree of turnover, or programs such as Lean and Six Sigma.

BPM starts by examining processes or procedures repetitive in nature, have compliance associations, or are based on standard operating procedures and/or best practices. BPM can also be used to capture activities launched in response to a corrective action, such as a failure of incoming material inspection quality levels or a quarantine or recall of products.

Vendors such as Invensys and GE have created industrial workflow products that embody the procedural enforcements, business logistics, and process improvement capabilities of BPM.

An example of a BPM process workflow starts with a "trigger" that launches a sequential or parallel set of actions in response to an event. Everyone involved with completing the activity are modeled within the workflow, along with the artifacts, i.e., the documents, screens, or other message-handling activities that need to accompany the process.

By providing a single point of access to information, independent of geography and departmental boundaries, the cloud provides BPM and workflow applications the capability to deliver on their true potential.

Bright forecast

The cloud offers manufacturers many benefits as a hosting platform for applications that are widespread in use within an organization. Today training applications, workflow, and mobile, smart device-enabled reporting are among the most promising manufacturing applications that have a natural affinity for cloud-based hosting. Additionally, some of these can start out as site-based, server license applications, and then scale to the cloud, allowing for incremental growth through familiarity and use. As Internet bandwidth, reliability, and security improve, however, we will see control and safety functions in the cloud as well. It is just a matter of time.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maryanne Steidinger is the director of operations and information software for Invensys Operations Management. She has more than 25 years of industry experience, with a concentration on software and MES, and has held senior positions at Rockwell and Siemens. She joined Invensys in 2008 and can be reached at maryanne.steidinger@invensys.com.

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