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Edge computing is essential for smart manufacturing initiatives

Sept. 18, 2023
Manufacturers are deploying simple, protected and autonomous edge computing to rapidly modernize IT infrastructure to be competitive and future-proof.

As the industrial world becomes more connected and digitalized, software increasingly drives operational success. Whether for production monitoring or collecting data for insight, innovation and efficiency largely rely on automation coupled with software.

Local computing power in industrial environments becomes more critical than ever, forcing organizations to update infrastructure to support smart manufacturing initiatives. New types of edge infrastructure and a new breed of edge computing deliver reliability, processing power and easy manageability in the operational technology (OT) environment and translate data into actionable insight.

Edge computing is, therefore, a requisite Industry 4.0 technology alongside cloud, IIoT and other technologies that enable manufacturers and other industrial verticals to stay competitive or gain an operational advantage. Deploying software and connecting data requires the proximity of sufficient computing resources to run software and collect, store and analyze data.

Modern edge computing platforms that meet OT requirements offer built-in fault tolerance, proactive health monitoring and easy maintenance by OT and IT staff–without special skills or tools.

Three ways edge computing is foundational for transformation

Many organizations have compute infrastructure well past its prime. But teams struggle to fund new hardware, prioritize IT support and schedule planned downtime for upgrades. Why fix it if it ain’t broke becomes the most pragmatic approach.

However, aging operating systems, applications and hardware are no longer supported, and users get caught in an unsustainable break-fix cycle.

Modernizing edge computing delivers:

  • Reliability, security–For any industrial setting, uptime availability is paramount for operational success, including important measures such as overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). Edge computing platforms can deliver built-in fault tolerance to run applications without downtime or data loss. For regulated industries, this reliability is fundamental for operations to avoid disruption or lost product. It is also critical for compliance and auditing, where loss of data or hardware updates can result in re-validation or significant documentation. Fault tolerance is available out-of-the-box, transparent to the applications running and without the need for additional scripting.
    Cybersecurity is of the utmost consideration for OT–and perhaps the greatest area of concern for IT teams as they think about the OT environment. Edge computing provides a landing spot for IT teams in the OT world to ensure cybersecurity is running and that there is full visibility of networked OT assets. Modernizing edge computing infrastructure also ensures that the latest patches and updates are available. A typical edge computing approach includes a combination of built-in security such as Microsoft Windows as well as running applications from vendors such as Claroty, Dragos, Xage and Palo Alto Networks.
  • Reduced footprint–Organizations need to deploy industrial software and need compute platforms with the power and performance to handle large volumes of data in real-time. Edge computing platforms meet the requirements of the OT environment – hardened and potentially physically protected and validated to run HMI SCADA and DCS software from AVEVA, Inductive Automation, Rockwell Automation and others. Modern edge computing platforms meet these requirements and serve as the connection from PLCs to SCADA as well as higher-level systems such as manufacturing execution systems (MES) and asset performance management (APM) tools for condition monitoring and predictive maintenance.
    OT teams can deploy edge computing platforms, backed by fault tolerance, to run application virtualization to consolidate multiple servers and IPCs into a single platform and run multiple software applications concurrently. This dramatically simplifies complexity and management and reduces footprint and cost. Remote edge computing platforms can be monitored off-site and updated to simplify manageability.
  • OT/IT convergence–OT and IT teams are working more closely together with systems integrators reporting an increase in this interaction particularly in the past five years. However, limited IT staff and access to OT locations continues to place pressure on OT staff to perform IT duties to support and maintain their computing infrastructure.

Importantly, deploying new edge computing platforms to upgrade infrastructure can put both organizations on a path to achieving shared goals related to technology availability and security. In addition, edge computing platforms allow OT teams to run the industrial software they require while providing IT teams with a familiar place to operate in the OT environment.

While the industry backdrop is digital transformation, on the ground, transformation is occurring incrementally, and modernization efforts with edge computing provide an opportunistic and practical time for teams to build a foundation for growth. They can rapidly transform infrastructure with deployments that take a few hours instead of days by using pre-validated hardware and software edge architectures for reliable performance and repeatability.

Move to the cloud – at your own pace

Moving operational data into the cloud offers efficiencies and use cases not possible with locally managed data. Combined with limited IT staff and expertise constraints, cloud offerings are attractive. The question is how to connect on-premises systems and data to the enterprise and the cloud.

Given the volume of data generated, some of which require real-time action, full cloud approaches are not always feasible. A well-structured edge computing architecture builds the infrastructure necessary to support local operations and build a data bridge for cloud use. Such hybrid cloud/edge architectures demonstrate the technologies are complementary rather than opposing.

On-premises computing remains essential for real-time processes such as HMI SCADA. The majority of MES systems and historians also still reside locally. At the same time, there is tremendous value in connecting these to the cloud for broader decision-making and for standardizing multi-site deployments.

What to look for

Three keys to edge success for OT teams include:

  • Simple: Easy to deploy, install, manage and scale up over time, and designed with a zero-touch approach.
  • Protected: Built-in full system redundancy to protect against data loss and downtime and able to support an organization's security posture.
  • Autonomous: Ability to deliver constant application availability, proactively identify and resolve potential failures, and provide remote management.

Across discrete, process, and hybrid manufacturing, Edge Computing is delivering the reliability, processing power and easy maintenance for next-generation, sustainable operations.

About the Author

DoShik Wood

DoShik Wood, Senior Director, Product Marketing & Communications, Stratus Technologies