How to get an Edge in manufacturing

Posted on 2 Aug 2019 by Maddy White

Manufacturing is adopting and adapting to new technology, but sometimes businesses can end up chasing their tail in proving the business case for the latest kit. Utilising the cloud and edge computing can maximise a manufacturer's data, operations and productivity, but the element of risk still weighs on decision-makers minds.

Moving to the Cloud is inevitable for manufacturers to future-proof processes and protect their precious data, but the challenge for many remains convincing senior management of its ROI.

Not only this, but how can firms foster a culture that embraces technology like the  cloud and edge from the shop floor all the way to the boardroom?

This pressing topic was explored by a select group of manufacturing leaders, representing a broad cross-section of businesses, at The Manufacturer Director’s Forum dinner, co-hosted with global interconnection expert, Equinix.

“At the core of this, we all have very similar challenges despite sector and size differences,” noted one managing director.

CROP - Cloud computing symbol being pressed by hand - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Industry needs a secure future

“We don’t know what the world will look like,” said a director at a global automotive company.

A nod to the future kicked off the evening, and as the conversation developed it was understood that this uncertainty is causing “paranoia” among some.

It’s impossible to pin-point exactly what manufacturing – or any sector – will look like in years to come, but when making investments for the future, issues such as risk, ROI and culture are constantly raised.

The manufacturers agreed they must adapt and adopt technology like the cloud; but as data and IP are often their biggest assets, they are regularly held back by security concerns.

“We don’t practice what we preach,” said one guest. “We tell our customers to openly share their data, IP and designs in the cloud, but we are reluctant to do that with our own data for security reasons.”

Another delegate added, “We have a data centre using very old equipment, but we are paranoid about changing it because two-thirds of our revenue goes through those servers.”

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Cloud and Edge to co-exist

David Lucas-Smith, sales director at Equinix, defined edge as measuring how quickly data is made available; and cloud by how agile it makes a business. “Edge is necessary to connect data across continents, and cloud and edge need to co-exist in an organisation,” he told the room.

“There is no silver bullet,” says one head of innovation at an international group. “There is still a lack of understanding particularly around Edge and where it ‘is’, there is a need to install knowledge and that is a huge task.”

Communication is a challenge throughout manufacturing businesses; so how does industry communicate new tech like the cloud and edge to the shop floor?

One manufacturer told of how their company struggles to justify the ROI because of “intangible” benefits, like enabling the firm to solve problems before they arise or are even known. Lucas-Smith added that there is sometimes a “psychological caution to using the cloud.”

A tech-driven culture

“Years ago, I had a project which put data into the Cloud, but it failed because we didn’t ask the users ‘what do you need?’ or ‘what challenges are you facing?’ The culture in a business must be for tech to be pulled by the users, rather than pushed by management,” one guest explained.

Manufacturers are trying to avoid technology failing at all costs and it was heard that sometimes this means dated systems frequently being patched and “holes plugged”.

“We don’t often enough go back to basics to review the system, we just try and make it work,” said one chief engineer.

CROP - Automation Edge Cloud Digital Digitalisation Industrial Internet IIoT - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

A quality manager added; “People categorise risk in a white-washed way and senior management are often afraid to be transparent. There is a bigger risk of not doing something and falling behind.”

A guest voiced another concern; “There is huge cultural hurdle within domestic IT teams who question why some platforms should be outsourced, when they feel that they can build solutions themselves.”

It was heard that onboarding the latest technology will accelerate growth in businesses, but – crucially – it should show a commitment to the workforce and support them.

Bullet-proof business case

When pitching technology like the cloud and edge, building a bullet-proof business case is a must, but just how to do this remains a key challenge.

“There’s a huge task for internal teams to build a business case for cloud technology,” said one delegate.

An operations director adds, “Investments that are not technology driven are often seen as more profitable because they are tangible, even if that is not the case.”

It was heard that communities need to be created within businesses to allow employees to offer feedback and help support fledgling business cases.

An engineering lead at a global firm said, “A forward thinking CEO will embrace the cloud, edge and data to maximise their business, and then they will invest further in tech to support that.”

One thing affirmed by everyone was that fostering the right culture for data optimisation and cloud adoption is essential for projects to be successful.

Achieving this relies on cross-department communication in every direction (up, down and horizontally) in order to educate on the opportunities tech like the cloud and edge can bring.

The next generation will challenge manufacturing to advance again with as yet unknown technologies and industry’s responsibility is to embrace their innovation.

For more information about how Equinix supports manufacturing download, click here to download the Digital Edge Playbook.

All images courtesy of Depositphotos