Mar 12, 2021

The factory of the future: where does edge computing fit in?

Manufacturing
Edge
Cloud
5G
Nick Offin
5 min
The ongoing pandemic has pushed digital transformation to the top of the agenda for those working in manufacturing
The ongoing pandemic has pushed digital transformation to the top of the agenda for those working in manufacturing...

According to Gartner, the smart factory is the factory of the future, with robotics and automation both gaining significant momentum. Each promising to transform the way factory workers, processes and technologies leverage data to impact production quality, operational efficiency and agility, and costs. When it comes to how and where this explosive amount of data is processed, edge computing is beginning to take centre stage: processing it at the source.

The manufacturing industry is well-known as one of the early adopters of edge computing. However, it has been pushed even further into the limelight by the rapid implementation of the Internet of Things (IoT), especially over the last year in the face of COVID-19. As manufacturing plants react to the changing world that the pandemic will leave behind, this technology is now coming to the forefront as a necessary component of network infrastructure. It promises to support a new, highly digitalised and connected production facility. Together with next generation technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence (AI), it can help manufacturing businesses strengthen their IT infrastructures to maintain a competitive advantage and support post-crisis recovery. 

Keeping digital transformation top of the agenda in a post-COVID era

The ongoing pandemic has pushed digital transformation to the top of the agenda for those working in manufacturing. Technology is altering everything from design to production, creating dramatic changes in network traffic patterns and producing significant amounts of data across disparate devices in multiple locations. For many manufacturers looking to a post-COVID era, the future vision is one of factory digitisation. And for good reason. According to research, digitally-savvy companies generate 38 per cent higher revenue growth than those that have not yet digitised their business. 

Edge computing can provide a way to deploy technology with unhindered network performance, no matter the location. By decentralising compute, it not only reduces pressure on data centres and service provider networks but also preserves bandwidth and enables real-time processing closer to the users and devices – rather than sending data to more central locations in the cloud.

Maintaining a competitive edge

Collecting and processing data at the edge, closer to the source, also brings a number of additional operational and commercial advantages. Take the automotive industry, for example. From January to September last year, car production losses across Europe amounted to over four million vehicles compared to the previous year, as manufacturers came to terms with the effects of COVID-19. For manufacturers looking to recoup lost revenue, one benefit is the ability to use data from multiple machines, processes and systems to adapt the manufacturing process in real-time. Where optimising both yield and product quality are paramount, edge computing can support with precision monitoring of the production line right on the factory floor. 

Importantly, this precision monitoring and control of manufacturing assets and processes also enables swift operational responsiveness to unforeseen events, something that naturally many manufacturers have realised the importance of over the last year. Real-time data processing at the edge enables the gathering of more immediate data from connected systems and devices. The ability to analyse data at the point of creation, rather than sending it to the cloud, leads to faster reactions from leaders and ultimately more informed decision-making within the business.

Deploying next-generation technologies 

For manufacturers who are increasingly making use of next-generation technologies such as IoT, AI and wearables, there is a strengthened business case for implementing edge computing solutions. Because of its ability to support local, real-time data processing, edge is key to grasping the opportunities that these data- and performance-intensive technologies present.

IoT and wearables, such as assisted reality (AR) smart glasses, have seen an uptick in adoption over the past year. Through its ability to empower workers and streamline workflows, edge has the potential to enable smarter supply chains and improve worker safety and productivity.

In manufacturing plants, AR solutions are already actively enhancing maintenance and production by enabling a range of hands-free tasks and processes. For example, smart glasses equipped with a ‘See-What-I-See’ functionality allow an onsite car mechanic, who might have run into difficulty in a time or safety-critical inspection or repair decision, to connect with a wider pool of remote experts and receive valuable support and guidance to complete a task. Additional capabilities from AR smart glasses can be accessed whenever and wherever they are needed, without disrupting the mechanic’s workflow. 

Other examples available at the worker’s fingertips include document retrieval, receiving new workflow instructions, real-time video and image capture, as well as accepting new product updates. These remote-control capabilities are increasingly important in facilitating greater efficiency as well as maintaining the reduced frequency of human-to-human contact in the current climate. 

How the power of 5G will unlock new opportunities

Finally, we couldn’t discuss edge computing within the manufacturing industry without exploring its relationship with 5G, with the roll-out of the latter being intrinsically linked to the current and future development of the former. To render the 5G vision of connecting millions of devices with ultra-low latency and ultra-high reliability – and at reduced costs – edge computing is required, significantly reducing the physical distance that data has to travel for processing, thereby limiting lag or delay.

Beyond this, the rise in robotics and automated factories is giving rise to massive amounts of data which require strong connectivity. 5G has the power to support this and, as a result, is expected to play a key role in global economic recovery while kick-starting growth in the sector. The global edge computing market is projected to grow by 34 per cent between now and 2025, with the manufacturing sector set to hold the largest market size during this period. 5G will play a key part in driving this growth.

With IoT deployment on the rise, manufacturers are increasingly adopting edge computing to support the data generated by these solutions, as well as to maintain a competitive advantage by reducing unforeseen downtime issues and improving overall efficiency. As organisations look to initiate post-COVID recovery strategies, it’s clear edge computing should form an important part of any such plans.

By Nick Offin, Head of Sales, Marketing & Operations at Dynabook Northern Europe

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