Assessing Cloud Computing’s Value

When it comes to data analytics for operational improvement, cloud technologies have reduced the hurdles associated with the infrastructure, hardware, maintenance, and capital long needed for such efforts. But is it worth it for smaller manufacturers?

Few people in industry today haven't yet been inundated with information about the use of cloud and edge computing for collecting and analyzing the massive amounts of data generated by industrial equipment. And though cloud computing was the main focus for these applications several years ago, over the past few years, edge computing has garnered an increasing share of the discussion. The reason for this stems largely from edge computing’s advantages of keeping data on site and not having to worry about the bandwidth and cost concerns generated by transmitting and storing those massive amounts of equipment data in the cloud.

Despite these benefits, cloud computing will still have a big role to play in industry's future, and not just for the biggest companies. To learn more about this, we connected with Brian Fenn, chief operating officer at Advanceon, a system integration and engineering services company. As captured in an episode of the “Automation World Gets Your Questions Answered” podcast series, Fenn provided several insights into the benefits of cloud computing for small and mid-sized manufacturers.

Following are some of the key points discussed in the episode.

Cloud computing realities
When asked about his experience with Avanceon clients’ use of cloud computing, Fenn said that he believes well more than 50% of the company’s clients use cloud computing in some fashion. “Between cloud computing and virtualization, we've seen these [technologies] really take off inside manufacturing IT departments as those technologies become more reliable and part of our everyday life…for smaller manufacturers all the way up to the big guys.”

Brian Fenn, chief operating officer, Advanceon.Brian Fenn, chief operating officer, Advanceon.Fenn explained that most applications of cloud computing among Avanceon’s clients involve using it “as an easy way to gain more visibility into their existing process.”

As an example, Fenn mentioned Avanceon’s work on an Internet of Things project for a chemical manufacturer using low-cost, wireless sensors to collect critical safety and environmental data. The aim of this project was to make this data accessible around their campus and send it to the cloud for analysis.

“We then coupled that [capability] with some notification software, that allowed the manufacturer to reduce physical shift coverage for their rounds at the plant during off hours,” said Fenn. “That system ended up saving them tens of thousands of dollars annually. So, whether it's visualizing near real time production information to improve issue identification and response time, or trending and analyzing key process parameters and equipment effectiveness, the cloud represents a quicker and less capital-intensive path for manufacturers on their operations management journey.”

Remote access
Fenn noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced manufacturers to re-evaluate how their employees work and interact with each other. The use of remote meeting technologies for day-to-day interactions has “helped open the doors and accelerate [industry’s] willingness to use these different [remote connection] technologies,” he said. “We're seeing a lot more folks [who are now more] comfortable having that kind of connection and being able to work a lot more collaboratively and interactively. And we've seen that not only on the support side, but even on our implementation side as well, where [there can be] safety considerations and we need to ensure we know what's going on in the field with regard to starting and operating different equipment.”

Security
In any discussion of remote access technology and/or cloud computing, security remains a major concern for many manufacturers. Fenn mentioned that he does see attitudes beginning to change, in that more users see cloud computing applications for their manufacturing options as being similar to their use of online payment methods.

“As those products matured and became more robust, more and more people began integrating them into their everyday interactions because of the numerous benefits they offered,” Fenn said. “Similarly, suppliers have matured their offerings and approach to security. And more people are familiar with using cloud-based applications for other functions—whether it's for time and expense systems, customer relationship and project management applications, or even the traditional office software like email, word processing, and spreadsheets. And so, as a result, more manufacturers are utilizing these technologies because of the benefits they offer over a local system.”

Cloud computing really excites me because it democratizes these kinds of non-critical applications. As a result, there are more and more opportunities for small and mid-sized manufacturers to take advantage of better insight into their manufacturing operations and start to unlock efficiency and quality constraints that have remained largely invisible to date [because of] the limited tools and manpower those organizations could commit to those types of initiatives.

He added that the cloud has also “greatly lowered barriers to entry for these non-critical solutions by eliminating or reducing hurdles relative to infrastructure, hardware, maintenance, and capital. And it's also lowered switching costs and made it easier to move the solution—and your data as well—from one provider to another. If you're not satisfied with the results, the obvious attraction in the lack of upfront capital costs has encouraged more folks to give these solutions a try, as it's lowered the return needed to justify such an expenditure." 

Cloud or edge?
Since there's no way to really discuss cloud computing without also touching on edge computing, we asked Fenn to explain any reasons why a manufacturer would want to use the cloud versus performing these kinds of applications on site with edge computing technologies.

Fenn said that, while cloud and edge computing technologies do function in different ways, using one doesn't preclude you from using the other. “In fact, they can actually complement another complement one another quite effectively between real time data processing and exchange, and historical and feature analysis and perspective,” he said.

The main benefits behind choosing a cloud-based technology are the near infinite storage and computing resources. “But there's also inherent latency and bandwidth constraints that makes speed an issue [with cloud computing],” said Fenn. “So, while the cloud is well suited for housing, analyzing, and presenting data and information, the edge is in many ways the opposite.”

He explained this means that, while edge computing has limited storage and computing resources, “it's also able to quickly process commands and interface at the device level. So it's good for gathering communicating data as well as control,” he said.

Fenn also noted that “some solutions can use both paradigms in concert. For instance, you might have an edge device that's gathering data and doing some real time calculations around process key performance indicators and sending all that information up to the cloud. That data is then stored and analyzed serving as the basis for different reports and displays. At the same time, you could have manual or algorithm-generated control schemes or parameters pushed down to the edge.

Bottom-line benefits
When asked to explain the main benefits to cloud computing—specifically for the bulk of manufacturers who are not large global operations—Fenn said: “Cloud computing really excites me because it democratizes these kinds of non-critical applications. As a result, there are more and more opportunities for small and mid-sized manufacturers to take advantage of better insight into their manufacturing operations and start to unlock efficiency and quality constraints that have remained largely invisible to date [because of] the limited tools and manpower those organizations could commit to those types of initiatives.”

He explains further that, where earlier data analysis models required large upfront investment in hardware and customization, cloud computing makes it easy to quickly set up a proof of concept regarding a specific problem. This allows for a quick return on investment in such an area to then justify a piecemeal expansion that “not only continues to provide value, but also introduces these insights and subsequent modifications at a cadence that's more successful from a change management and human element perspective,” Fenn said.

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