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Can We Automate from the Cloud?

Factory automation and cloud applications combine to optimize plant processes. Watch this Take Five video for the full story.

Quick hits:

  • Industrial control suppliers partner with cloud platform providers to deliver practical manufacturing applications.
  • Tools such as MQTT can act as a bridge between the factory floor and the cloud. 
  • Startups in this space deliver new capabilities to robots.

Related to this episode:  

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Listen to the story here:

   Read the transcript below:

Welcome to Take Five with Automation World. I’m Stephanie Neil and today I’m reporting on automation and the cloud.

I asked industry experts: can we push machine control to the cloud? Because, let’s face it, as manufacturers digitize more operations, they need scalability.  Industrial technology suppliers are responding with new cloud-based capabilities, mostly around data collection and analytics. And while their solutions may differ, they are all in agreement that the cloud cannot control mission critical real-time processes on the factory floor.

To be clear, it can be done. But it shouldn’t be done. 

The reason it shouldn’t be done is that control programs require sub-second responsiveness, which would present a real safety concern if program instructions were being sent from the cloud. In addition, it clearly presents a cybersecurity risk.

So, while we won’t see a machine in the plant executing instructions from a controller in the cloud, manufacturing technology suppliers are getting creative about coupling cloud-based applications with factory automation.

A round up of recent partnership announcements shows a trend. For example:

  • In April, Siemens and Google Cloud announced a cooperation to improve shop floor productivity. It involves running Google’s artificial intelligence and machine learning models on top of Siemens Digital Industries’ factory automation data. According to the companies, this will enable visual inspection applications, or ways to predict the wear-and-tear of machines on the assembly line.
  • In June, Rockwell Automation announced it will acquire Plex Systems, a provider of software-as-a-service manufacturing platform. The move is an effort to expand Rockwell’s industrial cloud software offerings for manufacturing execution systems, supply chain planning, and quality management.
  • And, in August, Honeywell announced it will be a key provider of manufacturing software powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud. Targeting oil and gas, mining, and process industries, Honeywell will migrate seven on-premise apps to the cloud, to help customers make real-time data-driven decisions that address supply chain fluctuations and helps to reduce carbon emissions.

So we are starting to see suppliers optimizing their control systems to support digital capabilities.

Last year, for example, Bosch Rexroth introduced its ctrlX Automation platform, which runs on Linux and includes a real-time component for the deterministic aspects of machine control. Its multicore technology breaks down the boundaries between functionality, such as the controller, the HMI, and the communication channels, allowing everything to run in the same box on one processor.

Linux is open, yet highly secure, which will usher in new types of applications that could eventually include connecting to the cloud—like the ability to run a digital twin of a system in the plant and doing incremental updates on the twin which are periodically synched to update the physical system. 

Some suppliers are using MQTT, a publish-subscribe protocol to securely connect on-premises control systems to the cloud through the use of a broker. This allows software systems to access plant floor data without affecting system performance.

Opto 22’s groov edge programmable industrial controller includes MQTT communication which can connect to a cloud-based SCADA system. 

And Beckhoff Automation also uses MQTT as a central message broker in the cloud to enable all engineering, analytics, and debugging tools to connect with machines.

And we can’t talk about automation without talking about robots.

InOrbit, a California-based startup offers a secure, cloud-based robot operations management platform that can keep track of a fleet of robots. A small piece of software runs on each robot and through a secure bi-directional channel connects to the cloud. This enables a way to process massive amounts of data to quickly adjust to changing conditions on the robots, the network, or the overall environment.

You can learn more about InOrbit in our upcoming feature on start-ups to watch in the November issue of Automation World. And you can learn more about trends around automation applications and the cloud in the links below.

Thank you for tuning in to Take Five with Automation World

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