It was probably less than a year ago when I first heard IT and operations debating about the possibility of adopting a cloud-based manufacturing execution system (MES). At the time, the general feeling was that cloud computing was not acceptable for manufacturing companies—too many risks around having critical intellectual property transferred over the Internet and stored in some database hosted in a data center.
The concern was about not having control over what was happening to the information. Without a server room door well locked, cloud critics said, the competitive value of the company could be at risk. That was a strong enough perception to win out over the obvious advantages of not having a local IT infrastructure to maintain as well as the possibility of achieving better uptime. To be honest, it’s not only a matter of perception—technical difficulties also exist related to the availability of a good and reliable connection, providing enough bandwidth and a reasonable latency.
It was clear that IT and operations—coming from two different worlds with different requirements to satisfy and using technologies that were evolving at different paces—had a totally different viewpoint. For operations, cloud was still taboo while IT was already considering it an option.
Over the past year, however, things have changed considerably. It’s almost unbelievable how many constraints have disappeared and how much cloud has become a natural option to consider when implementing an MES/MOM solution. It has become so obvious that in the last four months we replied to at least four requests for proposal (RFPs) to develop a corporate MES/MOM system in the cloud.
Why have things accelerated so much and what are the benefits of cloud in this kind of project?
One of the most important benefits comes from the archaic inability of IT and OT to work together. The convergence between IT and OT that we all consider mandatory for modern manufacturing still struggles to happen in many companies. Cloud in this case is a reasonable neutral zone where IT and OT can find some reasonable compromises. None of them is in charge of setting up and maintaining a complex infrastructure to support a complex corporate MES/MOM. Moreover, cloud is faster to implement, reducing the extremely long time needed in many companies to have IT purchase, install and configure the server operations need to deploy the system.
Cloud is easier to scale and facilitate so that companies can start small and grow the project scope or deployment progressively. The IT infrastructure can be adapted and tuned based on the needs without complex and risky upfront investments. This speeds up the project start and the system usage. A reduced lead time from concept to go live impacts directly on the ROI and allows companies to approach the project with a higher flexibility that becomes a better fit for what the company really needs.
Cloud supports natively corporate solutions, deployed into several plants. This has a huge advantage again in terms of IT architecture, especially when it comes to maintaining the infrastructure. The need of skilled personnel available onsite in each plant is reduced. The control on corporate policies is enforced and easier to maintain. The same is true for the effort needed to keep the system up to date in terms of security policies and patches. Having a single point of maintenance increases the possibility of guaranteeing the consistency of the policies across plants.
A central cloud installation facilitates even the enforcement of corporate processes to guarantee the same behavior in different plants. Having common processes not only increases the sharing of information and facilitates the communication between different plants, but it more importantly guarantees that the collected information can be compared. This is critical for capturing and applying company-wide intelligence and knowledge through the use of analytics and business intelligence (BI). A key part of this area is mobility support for analytics and BI. The easy access provided by cloud to mobile users helps to enable access to information anytime and everywhere, as many key users require today.
Cloud is better to support complex supply chains. Since many MES/MOM projects extend, at least partly, outside of the plant walls and impact the various actors of the supply chain, a cloud-based solution is easier to manage when it comes to sharing data and coordinating with different actors of the value chain.
Of course, all these reasons do not justify or explain why things have changed so rapidly over the past nine months. There’s certainly the matter of perception and habit. As always, when people get used to a technology in their private lives, they are keener to adopt it in their professional lives. Cloud has become more popular in our daily activities—so popular that sometimes we struggle to identify what is cloud-based and what is local.
The important thing is that the interest in cloud systems has really changed. The cloud, as we have long said, is really coming to manufacturing.
Luigi De Bernardini is CEO at Autoware, a certified Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) member based in Vicenza, Italy; and president of Autoware Digital. For more information about Autoware, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.