Is it time to look at edge computing?

06 July 2020

Stephen Hayes explains why now is the right time to look deeper into industrial edge computing.  

The rollout of 5G telecommunications networks will start to enable greater speeds and reduced latency. The introduction of these networks will support the development of more advanced computing applications like autonomous vehicles, and this has made businesses start to look more closely at edge computing. For the manufacturing sector more effective edge computing does not need new telecoms technologies β€” it just requires consideration of industrial PCs (IPCs) at the edge. 

Computing at the edge is not a new concept. In industries where connected devices or systems are active in the field, it is beneficial for those systems to complete some functions, like data processing or compression, without transmitting information. This helps avoid bottlenecks in data communication and reduces the response time of systems.

As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) becomes more popular among industrial businesses, so too does the idea of moving computing responsibility away from central control rooms. According to one industry survey conducted in early 2019, 43% of manufacturers have already deployed some edge systems to help with data analysis or equipment data processing in the field.

Decentralising the computing responsibility across a factory means systems can respond to performance data in near real-time, reduces the burden of data storage in centralised systems and helps make networks more robust.

Edge computing is also relatively straightforward to integrate into networks. It either requires investment in new systems with built-in computing capabilities, or retrofitting IPCs into existing machines to provide data processing, analysis and visualisation at the edge. 

Beckhoff has found that many industrial businesses opt for the latter option to reduce upfront costs. As such, the company has developed a range of IPCs that are able to provide edge computing functionality and can be easily wired, mounted and fitted to existing systems.

The most recent addition to the range is the C7015, an ultra-compact IP65/67 rated edge computing IPC that can be directly integrated onto machines. The C7015 offers powerful multi-core processing, courtesy of its Intel Atom multi-core CPU, which allows it to handle demanding data pre-processing tasks even with large volumes of input data.

However, because the potential for edge computing means that it will likely become commonplace in the years ahead, Beckhoff has used the opportunity to also address a longstanding industrial issue – specifically, the issue of machine real estate. 

The C7015 offers edge computing functionality can can also act as a TwinCAT 3 controller for sensors, actuators and field devices. This functionality is expanded by using EtherCAT P I/O modules, which brings the conventional control cabinet directly onto field-level machines. In effect, it can reduce the footprint of control cabinets, which means more square metres of real estate to provide productive output for manufacturers.

This all forms part of a new concept developed by Beckhoff – automation without cabinets. As machine real estate continues to be a concern for those deploying more automation systems and edge devices, Beckhoff is actively developing ways to alleviate the need for unwieldy control cabinets where possible, while still offering effective automation systems.

With edge computing growing in popularity and increasingly in the mind of businesses, it’s important that manufacturers identify effective, scalable systems to support their ambitions. With flexible, effective IPCs, manufacturers can do precisely that.

Stephen Hayes is managing director of Beckhoff Automation UK.

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