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A new era of industrial computing

24 November 2021

Marc Garner explores how to mitigate application downtime in the era of smart manufacturing

Today, increased levels of automation, advanced robotics, AI and machine learning are driving unparalleled change within industrial manufacturing environments. With growing levels of complexity, industrial applications demand secure, on-site computing systems that offer the user high levels of security, ultra-fast connectivity and, above all, resilience.

Indeed, with growing digitization, many operators are required to meet shorter lead times, faster deliveries and have tighter margins. Keeping downtime to a minimum is, therefore, a key concern for manufacturers.

The era of Smart Manufacturing has begun to drive a new wave of IT technologies into industrial spaces, where edge computing systems ensure privacy and data security, while guaranteeing uptime and addressing bandwidth requirements that have become crucial to operations.

This is of particular relevance for Ireland, where the manufacturing sector contributes 12% of total employment with €12.5 billion in wages and employment axes annually, almost three in 10 (29%) manufacturing jobs are in high-tech sectors, four times the EU average, according to the Ibec Manufacturing in Ireland Report 2021.

Identifying the edge application

For Industry 4.0, edge computing bridges the gap between cloud and on-premises infrastructure. The traditional drawback of the cloud has been high levels of latency or low response times, caused by the distance between the infrastructure supporting it and the location of the application.

Even with the proliferation of existing data centres in Ireland, IT at the industrial edge offers users the best of both worlds, placing physical infrastructure and business-critical IT closer to the point of use, enabling businesses to combine the benefits of cloud computing with the ultra-fast response times required by on-site equipment. This is especially so for businesses such as agri-food, where Ireland is the largest net exporter of dairy ingredients, beef, lamb and spirits in Europe. With many processing and manufacturing plants often sited in rural locations, far from the clusters of urbanised data centres.

Applications that benefit from edge computing can, in general, be subdivided into three categories, each with their own specific designs and benefits. They include IT facilities; commercial and regional offices; and Industrial or harsh environments.

The latter often comprises ruggedised micro data centres deployed in locations where ambient environmental conditions are difficult to control. Challenges can include a wide range of temperature or humidity conditions, water hazards, the presence of dust or other contaminants, and the need to protect computer systems from collisions and vibrations, as well as the obvious need for physical security to guard against unauthorised access. As the second largest exporter of medical devices in Europe, the ability to deploy IT safely in sterile environments is also critical.

Defining the Industrial

Edge For industrial operators to capture the benefits of increased automation, they cannot rely on cloud-technology alone. McKinsey states Industry 4.0 is a term referring to the increased digitisation of the manufacturing sector, driven by “the rise in data volumes, computational power and connectivity; …analytics and business intelligence capabilities, new forms of human-machine interfaces [including] augmented reality systems; and improvements in …advanced robotics and 3-D printing.”

These applications required the support of industrial edge data centres, which are IT systems containing integrated racks, power and cooling, and distributed across a number of geographical locations to enable endpoints on the network. When deployed within industrial manufacturing plants or distribution centres, the application is referred to as the “industrial edge.” 

Given the increasing importance of computing in factory and industrial automation environments, it is inevitable that greater numbers of edge computing systems will be installed in these harsh and remote locations. To achieve the shortest possible ROI and gain both the resilience and speed demanded by AI and other Industry 4.0 technologies, manufacturers must properly measure asset performance, identify any problem areas, and make real-time changes that will improve their operations.

This is also where on-premises IT becomes critical and is where the majority of the data capture occurs. Industry 4.0 requires that computing systems are tightly integrated into the manufacturing process, but it also means that resilience and high availability become key design concerns for the accompanying edge infrastructure.

Building a resilient Industrial edge

Downtime is the curse of any manufacturing operation and any integrated IT systems cannot afford to add to the risk of lost production. A 2016 study by Aberdeen Group, found that 82% of companies had experienced unplanned downtime in the previous three years, which could cost an average of $260,000 (€224,458) per hour! Industrial Edge systems, therefore, must be built to the highest standards of availability, if necessary, to Tier 3, which promises an uptime of 99.98% or an average of 1.58hr of downtime per year.

Tier 1 level data centres, with 99.67% uptime, for example, can be down for 28.82hr per year. In the example above, such a difference in downtime could cost upwards of $7 million (€6.4m) per year! Clearly, an investment in improved reliability delivers significant benefits to the bottom line.

Given the industrialised environments in which manufacturing operations take place, and the high level of potential contaminants, attention must be paid to the enclosures, which must remain robust to protect the IT. Space is likely to be at a premium too, so care must be taken to ensure that the system can be deployed in spaces that weren’t designed for IT.

Ruggedised IT enclosures can provide optimum performance in harsh environments. Some come in wall-mounted designs to make the best use of space, leaving the factory floor clear for manufacturing equipment. Careful consideration of the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will also safeguard against disruptions to power, while lithium-Ion (li-ion) batteries can also provide an energy efficient backup source, which frees up physical space because of their small size.

Cooling is also essential for reliability in any IT environment. In industrial spaces, self-contained air conditioners can be fitted to ruggedised systems to regulate temperature and humidity levels without incurring the risk of environmental contamination. No matter how reliable the hardware equipment is, however, the key to mitigating downtime is via real time monitoring and management, ensuring any faults can be proactively anticipated and addressed.

Software increases uptime

To ensure greater levels of resilience, software and security are crucial. Fortunately, Ireland is well placed to benefit from expertise in ICT, and according to a University of Cambridge study, “the presence of world-leading software and ICT industries, and favourable enabling contextual factors add to Ireland’s potential to drive the digitalisation of manufacturing forward.”

While physical security systems protect against unauthorised access, management software offers advanced protection from cyber-attack. For many operators, the ability to leverage a platform that brings together disparate systems including edge, building control and industrial process offers many benefits, including end-to-end visibility and real-time insight.

Open and interoperable software systems can leverage AI, data analytics and the cloud to enable real-time monitoring. Should downtime occur, a user can quickly dispatch service personnel to respond to any issues. The beauty of such management software is that it can be used by external service partners to provide support where dedicated technical personnel aren’t located on premises. Managed power services such as these thereby provide increased levels of resilience in smart manufacturing.

Today the growth of IT in industrial automation is driving new innovation that allows manufacturers to introduce new products and services far faster and with greater reliability. This enables Industrial organisations to execute their business strategies more successfully, drive productivity and deliver improved experiences to customers.

Vendors, likewise, are innovating edge computing solutions and services to minimise the risk of downtime in industrial environments, and as smart manufacturing increases, there is undoubtedly a need for a resilient industrial edge. Ireland itself is uniquely positioned to benefit from digital innovation in manufacturing, enabling the industry to continue its progression of innovation and digital transformation.

Marc Garner is VP secure power division, Schneider Electric UK & Ireland

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