A shift is coming

16 March 2020

Those already using edge computing might be considered early adopters, but recent research suggests that a shift is coming. Greg Hookings reports.

Considered by many to be most significant plant-floor advancement in industrial computing since SCADA, edge computing offers capabilities that were not previously achievable – and in a cost-effective way. 

Surveying engineers* across Europe the trend report from Stratus Technologies provides some interesting insight into the changing views relating to edge deployment. Exactly 41% of survey respondents see edge computing as a great leap forward with over half (52%) indicating they may be nearing the tipping point for adoption. Not only this, but 51% are actively evaluating or planning their edge computing applications and it is data that is driving this change. 

Data – the lifeblood of industry 4.0 – is being produced in ever increasing quantities on the plant floor. On its own, all this data is worthless. It needs to be accessed, collated, stored, analysed, visualised and contextualised to offer valuable insights. All of this needs to happen on, or via, a computing platform. Traditionally this would be sited either in a server room or in the Cloud, but to make actionable changes in real-time, the computing needs to happen right at the application edge.

Reducing bandwidth costs, reducing security issues by keeping data on-site, and correcting problems that might not be identified as quickly if the data were to be sent to the Cloud, are all benefits that users of these edge computing technologies can expect. Successful implementation requires a thoughtful architecture, and many would assume creating this would be costly. This however is not the case. Almost half of the survey responders say their organisations have the resources and capabilities needed in environments where operations technology, information technology, process control, automation and data science intermingle. With the correct solution working on a ‘plug & play’ method, an edge computing solution can often be integrated simply, without costly architectural changes. 

With everything in place to implement edge computing, the issue quickly moves on to how to gain the full benefit of computing data at the application level. However, only 6% of survey respondents stated that they have all the skills they need, with 52% citing a shortage in control, process or automation engineer expertise. One-in-three respondents said that computer network specialist expertise was needed to make the most of edge initiatives. However, for the manufacturer on-site, there are no additional skills needed to install and manage an Edge platform, adding computing power where there might be little to no IT expertise, either in a remote location or on the factory floor. Where the skills gap becomes prevalent is in using the data that is being recorded to inform better decisions. 

A factory-specific survey, carried out by market intelligence company, teknowlogy, of European manufacturing enterprises suggests that fewer than one-in-ten analyse more than 75% of the data they hold. Not only does this show a need for analytical skills but it poses a question internally for manufacturers, where does the responsibility of analysis fall? 

The hybrid professional 
It seems that, rather than the responsibility being solely IT or OT, a new professional job role has emerged. The IT/OT professional, or hybrid professional, is as comfortable working with servers as they are with machine tools or pumps and valves. These professionals will have a deeper understanding of where industrial operations meet computing technology and most importantly recognise the value of data produced at the edge. The rise of this professional coincides with the generational shift. Many traditional OT professionals have had long careers and a new generation of digital natives, raised on technology are more able to leverage data in new ways.

When asked what edge computing use cases are most valuable 57% cited device failure detection, followed by 55% who cited advanced process control. With understanding at an all-time high, engineers are keen to implement edge initiatives to improve operational efficiency and increase product quality – those who can overcome the skills gap can expect to achieve this, and much more besides.

A copy of the report can be downloaded from: https://data.imlgroup.uk/stratus-technologies/

Greg Hookings is head of business development – Digitalisation at Stratus Technologies.

*Survey respondents were from European manufacturing companies directly involved in the research, design, procurement, selection process, management or disposition of products, services or programs meant to enable Edge connectivity, control and computing in production or operations environments. 

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