Factories of the Future: Edge Computing on the Factory Floor

The world runs on data – the volume of mobile data traffic alone over the last five years has grown from 11.5 exabytes a month to 77.49 exabytes a month [1]. To put this level of growth in perspective, it’s estimated that 328.77 exabytes, or 328.77 billion gigabytes, of digital information are created on the internet daily today [2]

To cater for these data flows, robust and efficient network infrastructures must be built and implemented along with the right tools and solutions for more efficient and reliable network capabilities.  

With ongoing rapid digitalization, enterprises must keep pace and ensure that their systems are upgraded and optimized to cater to this growth. This is especially evident in the manufacturing industry as it transitions towards a data-driven industrial revolution, i.e. Industry 4.0. 

Over the last few years, we’ve seen the rise of cloud computing thanks to the flexibility it provides. However, as process enhancements and smart solutions make their way to the factory shop floor, faster processing options like edge computing must become a key area of focus to facilitate better productivity, efficiency and more. 

Here’s why edge computing has become critical for manufacturing growth and the development of the smart factories of the future. 

Why is cloud being edged out by edge computing?

Cloud computing enables flexibility, allowing employees to work anywhere, anytime. As a result, almost all sectors and industries – including manufacturing – have experienced cloudification, with the wide area network’s (WAN) “center of gravity” of many enterprises being shifted from on-premises to the cloud. 

This is largely attributable to rapid digitalization brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic when enterprises had to virtualize network infrastructure and operations  and find a way to continue working even with widespread disruption. 

However, is cloud computing sustainable for manufacturing enterprises? 

The manufacturing process has digitalized, meaning more data is being collected from sensors and embedded into processes to provide deeper insight into efficiencies, failures, safety, forecasting, and more. This calls for very complex interconnectivity, that a cloud approach may not be able to effectively support.  

With a cloud-centric approach, a great deal of data would have to be transferred into the cloud for processing, leading to latency issues and inefficient processes that are unscalable and unmanageable [3]. Worse still, the amount of data collected is likely to grow as technologies become more sophisticated.

Another source of concern with cloud computing is limited data control as the cloud provider owns the infrastructure; you, as a customer, may not be granted access to key administrative tasks that may help you mitigate risks [4]. Additionally, data management for large volumes of data can be difficult and costly. 

To mitigate these issues, edge computing has become increasingly popular [5].

So what is edge computing, and why is it important?

According to TechTarget, “Edge computing is a distributed information technology (IT) architecture in which client data is processed at the periphery of the network, as close to the originating source as possible ”[6]. One Microsoft blog described it more simply as adapting cloud-based code and data so that it runs on local devices and action can be taken locally [7]

With edge computing, enterprises can aggregate data on-site, thus separating significant and non-significant data. Data that is deemed significant can then be efficiently and effectively pushed to the cloud for further processing. In this way, edge and cloud computing complement each other and bring about greater operational efficiency and productivity – and hence better business outcomes.  

Some benefits [8] of edge computing include: 

  • More efficient operations
  • Faster response time
  • Greater employee productivity
  • Improved workplace safety
  • Functionality in far-flung locations
  • Heightened security
  • Data sovereignty
  • Reduced IT costs 

As manufacturing processes become more complex and require quicker response times, platform optimization and newer solutions like edge computing will become essential. 

Cutting-edge technologies in manufacturing is enabled by edge computing

Today, edge computing is showing increased adoption, underscoring its importance for manufacturers undergoing their Industry 4.0 journeys.  

According to one study, 78% of manufacturers globally are planning, have partially, or have fully implemented an edge use case, and around half of the manufacturers surveyed have reached the mature stage of edge network deployment [9].
With edge computing, manufacturers can fully utilize advanced robotics and machine-to-machine communication closer to the source of the data. Gathering, analyzing, and acting on data collected in the factory floor (or shopfloor) in real time can maximize the benefits of cutting-edge technologies as illustrated in the next few examples. 

  1. Automation: Through automation, analytics and big data are being used to improve quality control with reduced human input [10]. This has resulted in a decrease in errors and waste while increasing throughput, enabling better quality yields and thus greater productivity. Automation also enables predictive maintenance to be built into factories, as edge computing improves data processing to track metrics and identify issues in advance. Manufacturing plants experience less downtime because machines are maintained before they can break down. 
  2. Flexible deployment: Edge computing allows software to be deployed locally, by employees who may not be software programmers [11]. Teams are able to standardize software deployment and management, providing a quick way to introduce new capabilities.
  3. Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML): On top of being able to handle massive amounts of data, edge computing can be used to train and execute AI and ML systems in manufacturing [12].
  4. Integration of IT with operational technology (OT): To remove silos and enable greater efficiencies, edge computing can bring together large amounts of data from the IT and OT stacks. 

Finding the right partner to enable advanced network capabilities like edge

While cloud computing was a major leap forward in digitalization, edge is the next step for manufacturers. For manufacturing leaders looking to enhance their digital transformation and integrate edge computing into their operations, systems and processes to achieve better performance, Coevolve is here to help. With a wide range of solutions that can be tailored according to your needs, together we can develop the best-fit infrastructure and management to support your enterprise.