How Edge Compute Is Redefining Automation in Manufacturing

Ryan Spurr

In manufacturing, edge computing is not new. Factories have long had compute solutions in the plant, including programmable logic controllers (PLCs), local plant micro data centers or servers, and extensive use of traditional computers for kiosks, process equipment, signage, and workbenches. Because of what manufacturing has long done, edge computing is something we are all very comfortable with.

What has changed is adopting new industry standards, integrating the operational technology environment with information technology or the balance of the enterprise, and adopting Industry 4.0 and artificial intelligence. Among manufacturing leaders, 91% are planning to invest in creating digital factories (or smarter factories than they have today). Driven by this shift, 80% of manufacturing data will be computed at the center of business processes1 (what we call the “edge”) vs. on-premises data centers or cloud. 

This shift doesn’t replace the need for data centers or cloud infrastructure. Instead, it only implies that a new generation of technology will allow manufacturers to conduct intelligent operations inclusive of automation and decision-making at the point closest to where people and machines operate. In fact, 76% of manufacturers seek to integrate communications, infrastructure, and process between OT and IT. With the decisions processed at the edge, we empower the plant to be more resilient and independent while offsetting unnecessary network traffic and costs associated with transporting to and from data centers. It also creates a more scalable architecture that addresses operations and information technology needs and enables a new approach to innovation by lines of business.

Let’s examine ways the modern concept of edge computing is transforming in the market:

  1. Edge Compute Is Everywhere: I must point out nearly everything in the marketplace is being equipped with some form of computing technology, whether on the low or high end. If you take away nothing else from this article, understand this. Everything from cameras, sensors, tags, networks, appliances, scanners, and screens is becoming intelligent. I expect at some point very shortly, everything we buy and place into our factories will be capable of connecting to networks or cellular services, processing data, and interacting with employees and other devices in the environment.
  2. Next-Generation Edge Compute: As discussed earlier, computers for end users or factory equipment are not new. What is new is the proliferation of edge compute devices designed specifically for industrial environments and intended to replace the traditionally used personal computers or services sourced by IT or engineers. While all manufacturers share many things in common, most have unique environmental, process, regulatory, and safety requirements. For example, in the biopharmaceutical manufacturing industry, we must employ good manufacturing practices (GMP), or in the food and beverage industries, we must adhere to food and drug standards. In either case, we are talking about challenges associated with chemicals, biohazards, sanitization, and the potential for explosion. 

    The next-generation edge compute devices address these industry-specific regulations or standards by providing devices that are both safe, and fit for purpose. For example, this allows plants to prevent sparks from causing explosions or fires, protect from liquids or harsh sanitization chemicals, and fanless and sealed units to eliminate issues with dust or particulates from the manufacturing process. 
  3. Industrial Touch Terminals, Kiosks, and Digital Signage: Not every use case requires a dedicated terminal for frontline workers. We now see rapid adoption of next-generation shared devices in the form of shared kiosks, industrial terminals used with process and test equipment, and digital signage. Historically, each device would require another computer or device to operate. Today, most of these solutions integrate edge compute within the interactive touch screens, allowing for a more intuitive and productive experience for frontline workers. Other benefits include simplifying deployment or ensuring units are suited to endure the harshest or riskiest of environments.
  4. Networking Edge Compute: The notion of what is intelligent and can house compute capabilities has also changed. No longer is compute reserved for end-user devices. Instead, we are also seeing edge compute embedded within network and security appliances. This allows for trusted corporate and industrial networks to both securely route packets and provide computing capability anywhere along the network from edge to data center.
  5. Edge Data Center: It’s also important to point out that there is no one-size-fits-all in manufacturing. It’s not like there are only edge devices, and then on the other side of the line, there is a data center or cloud infrastructure. In manufacturing, we require a more complex, scalable, or resilient structure. As such, you can now procure a wide range of data center products built for industrial spaces. These products are robust and range from basic servers to high-end compute solutions with powerful processors and graphics capabilities designed to withstand the harshest of environments.
  6. Embedded Components: Industry 4.0 isn’t just taking place in our factories or warehouses. Manufacturers are now creating more intelligent products, serviceable or returnable containers, and new managed services that require compute solutions anywhere outside the traditional four walls. Depending on the product, this might include a next-generation edge compute device discussed earlier or leverage components embedded into the design of their products. In addition, many OEMs offer unique embedded technologies like chips, memory, touchscreens, sensors, and communication modules for connectivity, making this next step to innovative products easier.
  7. Software, VMs, and Containers: Lastly, we cannot close on the topic of edge computing without mentioning virtual machines and containers. In addition to edge compute hardware itself, many of these devices are poised to support custom software, virtual machines, and containers in new ways. As a result, DEVOPS teams have more options in designing, deploying, and managing software and data at the edge and across the entirety of their tech estate.

With 2.1 million manufacturing jobs going unfilled through 2030, we know manufacturers are looking for new ways to streamline and automate business processes for the better. Combining sensors, modern networks, and edge compute, the industry is already leveraging or accelerating the industrial transformation (IX). With a diverse range of edge computing offerings, manufacturers can now tackle any number of process improvement initiatives that fuel automation to improve quality, drive throughput, and reduce costs while also combatting potential shortcomings with lack of talent. To learn more about Connection’s Manufacturing Practice or to discuss the challenges and edge compute solutions highlighted in this article, contact us today.

1 IDC Worldwide Predictions for Manufacturing 2019

Ryan Spurr is the Director of Manufacturing Strategy at Connection with 20+ years of experience in manufacturing, information technology, and portfolio leadership. He leads the Connection Manufacturing Practice, go-to-market strategy, client engagement, and advisory services focusing on operational technology (OT) and information technology that make manufacturers more digitally excellent.