H Cloud Computing Red

Transforming factory-floor operations through cloud integration

June 14, 2023
Adopting a cloud-based operating model enables manufacturers to evolve from traditional methods of managing IT infrastructure to the cloud’s more flexible structures.

In the wake of the adversity and industry disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, manufacturing decision-makers seeking transformational value through greater connectivity, operational visibility, agility, efficiency and control have realized the need to move away from antiquated IT systems and adopt a cloud-first approach.

Historically, manufacturing IT operations relied upon on-premises systems and manual processes—typically managing multiple, non-consolidated software systems running on local servers. These servers were functional but had significant limitations. Siloed data, a lack of visibility across manufacturing processes, security concerns, complex integrations, costly maintenance and complicated upgrades were just some of the headaches facing manufacturers. Now, manufacturers are seeking to accelerate their digital transformation, and cloud integration in the industry is gaining significant traction.

Integrating cloud and cloud-based Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions—in particular, multi-tenant SaaS solutions—into the factory floor transforms manufacturing operations, providing speed and agility to better meet key business outcomes, fundamentally changing the way manufacturers work. Manufacturers who adopt a cloud-first approach evolve their business model with secure access to data from anywhere, at any time, over any browser, supporting both immediate access to all business data and the shift toward more remote and distributed ways of working.

Adopting a cloud-based operating model enables manufacturers to evolve from traditional methods of managing IT infrastructure—stringent licenses, maintenance contracts, version incompatibility, tedious upgrades—to the cloud’s more flexible structures—software subscriptions that include automated, continual software updates. This enables them to scale operations and deploy SaaS-based solutions as needed, providing flexibility and cost savings.

Leveraging data value

Data is the pulse of manufacturing that provides detailed information about the health of production processes and assets. Collecting, analyzing and contextualizing data from different sources is crucial to creating real value in datasets and ensuring that data is trustworthy. Deploying a comprehensive, cloud-native SaaS smart-manufacturing platform connected to all manufacturing assets enables system consolidation that allows data that was previously siloed in devices and applications to be harvested, analyzed and standardized—seamlessly—under a unified data system.

With the right data in the right context in real time, manufacturers create a more flexible and adaptable production environment on the factory floor. This intelligence enables better-informed decisions, increased collaboration and the ability to quickly identify potential problems such as bottlenecks and quality issues, then take corrective action in response to changes. In addition, providing real-time data on inventory levels, production schedules and shipping information optimizes inventory management and production planning, which can reduce inventory-carrying costs and improve order-fulfillment times, leading to higher customer satisfaction and less  product waste. Having visibility across all operations enables manufacturers to monitor energy and water usage, along with waste itself. The cloud's enhanced intelligence maintains efficiency and quality, improves sustainability and reduces the risk of errors and delays.

Scalability and maintenance

For manufacturers, the ability to scale is vital, both in terms of operations and technology adoption. The cloud facilitates digital-transformation implementation in phases through the modularization of smart manufacturing platforms. Initially, specific capabilities can be implemented to meet existing business requirements, and additional capabilities, or modules, can be added over time as the business demands. This is particularly valuable for manufacturers who may prefer a phased and scalable approach to enterprise-solution implementation.

Cloud-based SaaS subscription-model solutions enable manufacturers to access software applications and data securely and remotely via the internet, ensuring software and security functions of machinery and devices on the factory floor are always up to date through automated updates from SaaS vendors. So, rather than purchasing hardware and having to maintain software on that hardware, manufacturers can instead focus on their core business operations, leaving the software management to the SaaS provider.

Manufacturers can monitor, configure and manage systems, equipment and applications from anywhere at any time with a cloud infrastructure. They can track what is working and what is being used and identify any applications or devices requiring attention. Cloud-enabled remote maintenance ensures support is always available to respond to alerts and provide remediation quickly, minimizing downtime and maintaining productivity and operational efficiencies.

The cloud also enables equipment manufacturers to collaborate with customers to minimize downtime through predictive maintenance. With machine learning (ML), past-system data, usage patterns and experiences can be analyzed to identify normal and deviated operational patterns. AI algorithms can then define and model-failure modes, identify which components may be near the end of their lifespan and may soon fail, and recommend replacement.

Enhanced collaboration

Moving operations to a unified cloud improves communication, enabling greater levels of collaboration between manufacturers, employees, suppliers, partners and customers. With a cloud-based solution, all approved users can access the same data, documents and applications, supporting consistency and accuracy across operations, regardless of geographical barriers. For instance, accessing data and applications from anywhere in the world can enable product concepts and designs to be modeled virtually and shared collaboratively in a cloud “sandbox” that can scale as needed, simulating entire machines without building them. Feedback can be provided instantly. Additionally, production scenarios can be modeled and tested using digital twins with potential challenges identified and solved without the risks and cost of conducting these activities in the real world.

Flexibility for the future

Adopting a purpose-built, cloud-based smart manufacturing platform enables manufacturers to adapt to changing markets and unlock long-term growth opportunities. Access to real-time data creates a more connected and efficient production environment, where operations can be easily scaled, production schedules adjusted on the fly, communication and collaboration improved, quality control enhanced, and operations streamlined to drive productivity and competitiveness.

As the manufacturing industry continues to evolve, more manufacturers will likely adopt cloud-based, SaaS solutions to remain competitive and meet the growing demands of customers.

About the Author

Dave Morfas

Director, software & control marketing—production operations management, Rockwell Automation