Cloud Computing—The Next Automation Wave

Plants leap into the future and land on a cloud of innovation of cost savings.

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3M, the St. Paul, Minn.-based diversified manufacturer, built a visual application for design. Initially, it was used for the staff of 7,000 in 3M's research and development group. Recently, the company started to offer it as a cloud service for customers—that is, a service running on remote servers accessed via the Internet. There were two factors driving the development of the cloud design application—cost and innovation. “The way it's set up, images are stored on Microsoft Azure servers. The design analysis is also on the Microsoft servers," says William Smith, business manager of 3M Commercial Graphics, in St. Paul. “We also have a public Web site on a 3M server."

One of the major advantages of living in Microsoft's cloud is scale. “The other thing Azure can do that would be difficult for us is expand," says Smith. “As the data grows, it expands at Microsoft."

Cloud computing has come into its own over the past couple of years. A recent TV advertising campaign by Microsoft Corp., the Redmond, Wash.-based software giant, has made the “cloud" a household word. Security concerns about letting plant data reside on someone else's server are evaporating, as plant managers come to understand that the server in the plant may be the least secure of all. Moving automation costs from a capital expense to an operations expense also helps. The biggest driver is savings. Instead of licensing the software, you buy the software services as you use them—and they're always fresh.

The last two years have seen a profound change in how cloud computing is viewed by consumers and enterprises alike. “If you asked me two years ago, I would have said there wasn't all that great a chance cloud computing would catch on," says Kaj van de Loo, senior vice president for technology strategy at enterprise software supplier SAP, in Newtown Square, Pa. “People wanted the system close to their physical plant and their machines. But people needed to share information and run certain applications, so the idea of keeping it in one plant ended."

Getting comfortable

Much of the shift in the perception of cloud services started in the home. “People are becoming accustomed to cloud implementation in their personal lives," says Rob McGreevy, vice president of platform and applications at automation supplier Invensys Operations Management, in Plano, Texas. “There has been a massive proliferation of smart phones.  People are doing online banking and trading, keeping back-ups of home files in the cloud. They're comfortable with that."

One of the strongest arguments for the value of the cloud is that individual companies and plants can't devote the expense, expertise and time to create a large, complex analytical system. The vendors share the cost across a wide swath of customers and sell it by the slice. “More data is becoming available from the automation system. Plants are doing aggregation from historical systems, doing analytics on the data," says Frank Schuler, vice president, ASM manufacturing, at SAP. “They're processing large volumes of data. In the cloud, you don't have to add capacity and you don't have to invest in large servers. You can let it be somebody else's problem."

The ability to plow through historical data for sophisticated analytics is beyond the computing muscle of most plants. “You need sophisticated analytics in place, and that takes a lot of horsepower. By doing some of the work in the cloud, we can run through algorithms and eliminate some of the work for customers," says Rich Carpenter, chief technology officer and head of the Software Technology Group at GE Intelligent Platforms, an automation supplier based in Charlottesville, Va. “Sometimes, catastrophic events can be predicted and prevented two to four days before they otherwise would have occured."

The use of cloud computing lets plants access knowledge that may be in short supply on the premises of most plants. “We don't call it the cloud because it gets information technology (IT) people upset. We say it's other server providers," says Robin Thompson, founder and chief technology officer of Sensei Solutions, a company in Charlotte, N.C., that provides technology for electric utilities. “We get the data over the wire and it ends up going through our master process. More than just providing storage, it's collaborative analytics."

Plants are starting to take their collective knowhow and automate it. Many managers with deep knowledge have either retired or were let go during the recession. So companies are programming much of the production knowledge into software and putting in the hands of IT professionals in somebody else's office. “They communicate with our system to find out what temp should be set for the recipe. Our system automatically sets up the machine without having to rely on individuals looking it up," says Mark Symonds, chief executive officer of Plex Systems Inc.,  an Auburn Hills, Mich.-based cloud services provider. “These are fast, consistent set-ups that come from our database and send the correct data to the PLCs."

Cost is a huge factor in driving plants to the cloud. For one, the cost of cloud computing lives on a different side of the balance sheet than in-plant installations. “Cloud computing provides people with an opportunity to move the purchasing from the capital-expense side of the budget to the operations-expense side," says Craig Resnick, research director at ARC Advisory Group Inc., in Dedham, Mass. “You're paying every month to have it managed offsite instead of installing the software in your plant."

Cloud computing allows small and medium-size manufacturers to utilize sophisticated technology. “Smaller manufacturers don't have IT people. They use consultants on an hourly basis. They like cloud computing because they don't have to manage or maintain it and they pay on a monthly basis," says Chad Meyer, director of product marketing at Epicor Software Corp., in Irvine Calif. “Everything is built into the system, BOMs (bills of materials), set-up routines, scheduling production, inventory and materials."

Plant operators, managers and corporate executives want to see plant data on the run. They've gone mobile with smart phones and tablet computers, and they want to see what's going on. The cloud makes data sharing easy.

The ability to share data off-site can let managers monitor the plant from afar. “Say, you're a manager or supervisor and you're not on site. If you have a smart phone with Java, you can look at all relevant data. You can see how many units have been produced," says Kevin Rutherford, senior applications engineer at supplier Software Toolbox Inc., in Matthews, N.C. “If the line is running slow, you can do historical trending and look back to see if the line trends at slower run times before something fails. If so, you can alert maintenance to look at it."

Private clouds

Not all clouds have to live at the vendor's house. Some plants are creating their own in-house clouds. “There are two dimensions to cloud computing. We see private clouds and public clouds," says Craig Hodges, general manager, U.S. Manufacturing & Resources, at Microsoft. “Companies are setting up their own clouds, and they're using public clouds where they don't have the software. We're also seeing a variety of form factors, whether it's the traditional laptop and desktop, or a tablet, limited-function PC (personal computer) or a smart phone."

Two of the simplest arguments for cloud computing are the safety of the data and the ease of upgrading and adding additional applications. The security argument usually begins with a customer's skepticism of hosting plant data on a remote server, and ends with the discovery that the plant server is surprisingly vulnerable. With the lack of redundancy at most plants, a disgruntled employee only needs to “accidentally" spill a cup of coffee on the server to bring the plant to a standstill.

Plant professionals are beginning to see that technology companies have sophisticated security procedures to ensure the integrity and safety of data. The plant simply can't match the security level at IT centers. “Security issues are disappearing. Hotmail is a cloud that serves 450 million users. Xbox has 25 million users," says Microsoft's Hodges. “Thousands of customers, and even the U.S. government, are moving into the cloud."

Cloud computing also takes the pain out of upgrades and adding new services. In many cases, new applications can be deployed by simply asking the vendor to switch the new application in. “Upgrades are easier in the cloud. Cost is driving it. Daimler has created a business productivity infrastructure. They move projects that drive growth and let someone else manage the upgrades," says Hodges. “This isn't outsourcing. But you can migrate to new versions and functionality more easily than you could in your own world."

The view of cloud computing as a viable option for automation tools and applications flipped from skepticism to widespread acceptance in a couple of years. Much of the change may have come through personal behavior. People realized that their bank manages to track their dollars with far greater accuracy and security than any home-based system. So why not trust top-notch IT companies to manage plant data and applications? Cost was the final tipping factor that pushed plants into the cloud.

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