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Zero-touch to grab gains at the edge

June 23, 2020
It streamlines industrial processes and simplifies supply chain management.

There are huge gains available at the edge for manufacturers smart enough to grab them. But a new approach—a zero-touch approach—might make the most sense. Here we chat with Barry Dellecese, Stratus Technologies senior director of product management and product marketing, and Craig Resnick, vice president of consulting with ARC Advisory Group to learn more.

Smart Industry: What do you mean by a "zero-touch edge computing platform"?

Barry: A zero-touch edge-computing platform streamlines industrial processes,

Stratus Technologies' Barry Dellecese

simplifies supply chain management, and allows industrial equipment to operate with reduced human intervention. This means that the platform is easy to set up, configure and manage. These platforms are fully virtualized and capable of running multiple OT workloads as well as self-protecting and self-monitoring, significantly easing the burden on IT and OT professionals. The embedded security features meet IT standards, and can be remotely monitored and managed.

Our customers and partners want to reduce the complexity of their digital-transformation projects. The volume of data being generated requires a reliable platform for storing, analyzing, and processing that data to facilitate timely and effective decision making. With Stratus’ ztC Edge, we provide a fully integrated, reliable platform that protects important data, keeps applications up and running, and offers predictive servicing without the management burden. 

ARC's Craig Resnick

Craig: A zero-touch edge-computing platform is designed to provide the full capabilities and benefits of computing at the edge, such as gathering and processing data in real-time at or close to the point that the data is gathered, but is able to operate without requiring personnel with IT skills. This is different because traditional edge platforms require that the personnel who install, program, operate, and service them have an IT background and skillset, and traditional edge platforms are often are managed by the company’s IT organization. Zero-touch edge-computing platforms are critically important because, in spite of many companies seeing their OT and IT departments converge, edge-computing platforms used in industrial processing and manufacturing applications are typically under the jurisdiction of OT, the same persons who install, program, operate, and service the automation equipment, such as PLCs, PACs, DCS’, sensors and instrumentation, but do not have an IT background. So this creates tremendous savings in time and personnel costs, as well as reducing unscheduled downtime, since the zero-touch edge-computing platform is designed to run continuously without the need of IT personnel or access the platform either on-site or remotely.

Smart Industry: How is this crisis period changing the role of edge-computing solutions?

Barry: Over the last few months, we have seen an uptick in the interest in edge-computing solutions as organizations embrace the current situation and put in place plans for longterm resiliency. Most organizations are feeling the impacts, including reduced customer demand, longer sales cycles, supply chain challenges, plant closures (full or partial) and a focus on social distancing and workforce health. They are reevaluating their day-to-day processes and facing the reality that remote working is here to stay. This brings a need for more automation and optimization in their businesses; zero-touch edge-computing solutions offer them a way to achieve and even accelerate these efforts. Two of the most pressing challenges organizations face are the impacts to unplanned downtime and security with more remote connectivity. Zero-touch solutions can help organizations achieve their objectives while addressing these concerns.

Craig: The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly accelerated both the rollout and the use of edge-computing solutions. For all industrial-processing and manufacturing facilities, social spacing and remote operations have completely upended plants and factories, changing the role of how workers interact with each other and the product being produced, and moving as many personnel to remote locations as possible, including their homes. This means installing more edge computing platforms used to gather data from production processes, analyzing that data on-site in real-time, and making that analyzed data available to the appropriate personnel, whether they are spread out within the plant or factory or at home so they can make the best decisions possible to optimize production from any location without any detriment to production performance. Even when we arrive at a time when there are remedies and vaccines for COVID-19, companies have expressed a preference to maintain the ability for social-spaced and remote operations in the event of future pandemics, weather and natural disasters that could affect access to the plant or factory, and affect their ability to control their operations from centralized facilities.

Smart Industry: Are business owners developing smart strategies reliant on new edge capabilities?

Barry: This is a critical time for businesses to be more proactive in their adoption of automation technologies to optimize their OEE and enable their workforce to be more productive remotely. To do this effectively, business must look to next generation applications and new infrastructure architectures. Edge computing can not only help business operate in more efficient and agile ways, but also create opportunities for new revenue streams as business offer digital services to their customers. Additionally, scalable edge-computing platforms give these business owners the opportunity to start with a specific area of improvement and apply the solution more broadly in other areas as the business requires.

Craig: Yes to both! The smart strategies being developed by business owners are reliant on new edge capabilities to process the real-time analytics that leverage an abundance of data available from a wide range of new IIoT sensors. This data is used to not only optimize production and business decisions in real-time, but it can be used for future artificial intelligence and machine learning applications, using history to even further optimize decision-making. With remote operations, this data gathered from edge-computing capabilities is also needed to enable applications such as augmented reality, where remote displays can feature information that helps guide the user around the plant or factory floor as if they were on-site, supplementing the user with critical information necessary to make optimized production and business decisions. This data gathered from edge-computing capabilities is also used to enable virtual-reality applications, where the user is immersed into the production environment via a headset as if they were there actually on-site, very much like when gaming, except used for training to respond to any conceivable scenario that may arise, similar to pilots practicing disaster response in simulators.

Smart Industry: What most excites you about the near future of edge computing? 

Barry: The future is bright for edge computing and its impact has only just begun. There will still be growing pains as organizations determine how to best leverage edge computing to drive their digital-transformation initiatives. Technology trends including 5G, AI advancement and real-time decision making will be deployed in concert with zero-touch edge-computing platforms and will drive new use cases in industries that haven’t yet begun to leverage data to drive informed decision making.

Craig: What excites me the most about the near future of edge computing and where we are heading is this will truly complete the IT/OT-convergence journey that almost every global processor and manufacturer is going through. And zero-touch edge-computing platforms will help to accelerate this convergence by providing IT functionality to the plant or factory floor in devices designed to be supported by OT. IT/OT convergence and edge computing also accelerates the adoption of cloud technologies in plants and factories that are hesitant to use the cloud for applications, such as real-time analytics for fear of latency, as well as for fear of potential cybersecurity issues. This rapid adoption of cloud technologies is done by devising hybrid edge-cloud strategies where local, real-time processing, such as analytics, is done at the edge, and that processed information is sent to the cloud for use with historians, production management and other applications where less expensive, secure storage is required but real-time response is not. And based on the COVID-19 pandemic and the immediate demand for remote operations, we are headed for a new normal, which will greatly accelerate the deployment of zero-touch edge-computing platforms to help to fulfill these remote-operations requirements.