Cloud computing has become an integral part of our lives. We use it for storing pictures and data, listening to music, navigation services and many other activities in our personal lives. Companies commonly use cloud services to exchange emails, office documents and other data—sometimes even sensitive data. Remote banking application are hosted in the cloud, for example, and the major enterprise resource planning (ERP) providers now offer cloud services that are sometimes more sophisticated than on-premise applications.
Where cloud is still almost not even considered an option is operations. The idea of sharing data over the Internet still scares many, preventing the adoption of such solutions. Cloud-based functionality offered by traditional automation and manufacturing execution system (MES) platforms is rapidly increasing. But which opportunities can cloud services provide to operations? How can automation take advantage of the cloud?
Here are some ideas:
- Cloud can reduce capital expenditures. The entire hardware structure could be outsourced and optimized basing on actual needs, without requiring investments in hardware and without upgrade costs. In fact, the environment could be scaled without requiring any major change to company infrastructure, instead just adapting the actual services.
- IT infrastructure maintenance no longer needs to be the responsibility of operations, which typically lacks the necessary skills or competences.
- Cloud can improve performance. Providers can set up powerful and highly efficient infrastructures, splitting the required investments between many customers and offering them tailor-made architectures.
- Security of data is guaranteed from the service provider, which respects the most updated and recognized international standards, particularly because security is a fundamental prerequisite for clients to even consider moving their data into the cloud.
- Data in the cloud can be aggregated and manipulated using advanced algorithms, some of which are available only in the cloud. Using these algorithms, operations can better predict disruptions or deviations from a system’s usual behavior. Operations can also correlate production data with information available from other cloud service providers, such as weather data, creating new information. Best of all, data can be accessed from anywhere.
Considering all these benefits, why are companies not yet widely moving their operational data to the cloud?
Let’s consider how companies are structured: Usually, operations is in charge of all automation and production data, and IT manages ERP and business data. They’ve traditionally been two completely separate departments, not talking each other or, even worse, often fighting.
The increasing diffusion of MES is now flipping the game. MES is positioned between production and ERP, a kind of middle earth connecting IT and operations—production needs data from ERP and ERP needs data from production. For this reason, IT is becoming more involved in production data and operations needs more IT expertise.
So, when this kind of system is introduced in a company, IT and operations are forced to cooperate sharing knowledge, expertise and habits, creating a common shared governance. The expectation is that the same thing would happen for cloud.
But when cloud systems were first commercialized, IT was very adverse. “Cloud” was synonymous with “data loss,” “security breaches,” “IP violation” and a lot of other treats. When cloud solutions were proposed to operations, they had to ask IT for implementation and the answer was usually: “No, it will never happen!” Operations departments have been persuaded by IT that “cloud is evil,” so all solutions have remained on premise.
Things changed when ERP providers started to offer cloud solutions and office suites became online services. IT got used to buying cloud solutions for business applications. But this mindset change was unfortunately not shared much with operations, which still does not consider cloud an option.
Meanwhile, a lot of new features dedicated to operations have been made available in cloud: historization of process data, predictive maintenance, data analytics, reporting and dashboarding, for example.
What IT needs to do now is to share with operations what it has already learned: Cloud computing is more secure than it was originally; cloud infrastructure is optimized to manage production data; and the value of moving data into the cloud is much higher than the risk. Once this happens, more data will migrate to the cloud, further enabling the development of new features or totally new scenarios.
Who knows? Maybe in five years, the cloud will enable industry to apply artificial intelligence algorithms to automatically optimize supply chain coordination, extending the benefits from a single company to the full value chain, coordinating all the activities occurring from the first raw material producer to the final consumer, creating new data that for a single company or user wouldn’t be otherwise available, expanding traceability to new levels, improving quality of goods or services in a way that today cannot even be imagined.
Elisa Costa is software engineer at Autoware, a certified Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) member based in Vicenza, Italy. Luigi De Bernardini is and CEO at Autoware and president of Autoware Digital. For more information about Autoware, visit the Autoware profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.