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Get Your Head Into the Cloud

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Coca-Cola’s Kai Mariappan explained at The Automation Conference why the cloud makes perfect sense for automation maintenance. And why it should be called ‘cloutomation.’

 

If you haven’t heard anything yet about operating in the cloud…well, perhaps you’re operating under a rock. The cloud—which puts infrastructure, platforms and applications out on the Internet for use from your device—has become a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn, Gmail and so many more applications are all part of cloud-based living that most of us take for granted.

When it comes to bringing cloud services onto the plant floor, however, people are not quite as quick to embrace the concept, instead expressing concerns about vulnerabilities or impracticalities. But if a controls specialist at Coca-Cola Co. thinks the cloud is the place to be in automation, it might be time to sit up and take notice.

Kai Mariappan, plant controls specialist and senior controls engineer at Coca-Cola’s plant in Egan, Minn., is sold on the idea of using cloud technologies in automation maintenance. In fact, he feels so passionately about it that he’s coined the term “cloutomation.” And is launching a cloutomation.com website. And is creating a cloutomation group on LinkedIn.

Mariappan introduced his efforts at The Automation Conference in Chicago, where he explained about the needs and also the feasibility of operating automation maintenance from the cloud.

There are several challenges within the automation space that make it ripe for cloud technology, including the obsolescence of the automation infrastructure caused by aging and technology changes. “There are over $80 billion in obsolete automation systems in use in the world today. So who is going to maintain them?” Mariappan asked, noting the dearth of manuals, procedures and knowledgeable people. “Because industry is so old, most of the automation systems in older plants are obsolete. Most of the plants are 50 years old, 80 years old, and even 100 years old is not uncommon.”

It doesn’t help that there is a scarcity of automation professionals to maintain those legacy system, Mariappan said. The baby boomer generation has already begun to retire, and they will continue to do so en masse for the next 15 years; 40% of America’s skilled workers will retire in the next five years, he added.

Fast technological challenges make it impossible for automation professionals to keep up with trends. “A lot of general-purpose computer hardware and software has entered the automation world,” Mariappan said, noting a lifecycle of less than five years compared to the 15-20 year lifecycle of industrial components and devices.

Deploying newer technologies without disrupting existing operations is also a challenge. “If you want to implement new technologies, how do you do it?”

What it boils down to, then, is that the automation space is ripe for the kinds of services from the cloud that can make operations run more smoothly and efficiently. Mariappan pointed, for example, to Windows Azure, Microsoft’s cloud platform. He listed a host of automation maintenance tasks and operations that can be handled by Azure, including virtual machines, backup and recovery services, data management, business analytics, mobile services, networking, identity and messaging.

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“These are the areas in the cloud that could be identified for automation maintenance,” Mariappan said. And it affects not only automation engineers, but also system operators and trainers for local and remote systems, vendors, system integrators and many more.

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