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Reaching For The Cloud -- Part II

As the automation industry begins its reach into the cloud, manufacturing communities will not only improve productivity, they will begin to reclaim the prominence the industry once claimed in the economy. This is part two of a two-part piece on cloud computing. Part one can be found here .

As the automation industry begins its reach into the cloud, manufacturing communities will not only improve productivity, they will begin to reclaim the prominence the industry once claimed in the economy.

This is part two of a two-part piece on cloud computing. Part one can be found here.

Photo by turtlemom4bacon

Manufacturers and processors of anything from snack foods to automobiles are being driven to offer higher levels of variety in what they offer their customers. Invariably, supply chain power is shifting to buyers and consumers. This shift has been driven by numerous factors including the proliferation of information available to shoppers on all forms of digital devises effectively creating larger consideration sets. As the choices have increased, sellers and ultimately suppliers are forced to increasingly adhere to fads and rapidly changing consumer sentiment to retain market share. If we were to define the optimal supply chain to meet this trend it would be one where any item, no matter its level of complexity, would be produced on demand. Further, even the most commoditized and low costs items such as confectionary would be produced in a batch size of one to permit mass customization. This would enable a buyer to select a picture of the family dog from their iPad, upload it to a manufacturer’s website and a few days later a delivery van would arrive at your door with a box of chocolates each in the shape of Scruffy.

Markets are best served by catering to the individual tastes and preferences of the consumer. Therefore, we are beholden to understand how manufacturing must adapt to move past today’s batch processes to achieve a batch size of one. The innovation required to enable manufacturers to offer this, the ultimate level of production flexibility, will be drawn from fast-paced/cutting edge/advanced industries such as gaming and information technology.

Enter cloud manufacturing as technologies exist in all facets of packaging, labeling and decorating product to permit rapid change of color patterns and form. The pacing item is process control and ultimately the information from the consumer. And with the unprecedented speed of digital connections between people and the commercial world through social networks and alike, this valuable information can now be made more quickly available to manufacturers through the cloud. Cloud manufacturing represents the convergence of information, learned processes, and intelligent motion or activity.

Batch Size of One

The concept of cloud manufacturing allows access to a network where the consumer resides. In a basic model a baker has a website where a customer can upload a photo of their child playing lacrosse with the expectation that this photo will be reproduced on a birthday cake. This is a simple printing process for our baker, and there are web services that provide this service. But our baker wants to reproduce this image with depth to it as opposed to having it solely in one dimension like a photo.

When the system was set-up to make a carnation the decorator had to program the robot to dispense the icing at a specified rate. It also had to place the icing at the correct angle for the appropriate amount of time so that the icing leaving the nozzle interacted with the icing that had already been laid on the cake’s surface to produce the desired pattern and image.  It would continue to make layers of the icing on the cake’s surface until it produced the desired pattern and image. It is unlikely that this was a one pass programming effort, most likely it took time and refinement, (and many cakes) to get an image that would finally meet the decorator’s artistic standards. The challenge with the baker’s business model is that the decorator won’t have the luxury of processing the lacrosse picture numerous times due to the material loss and decorating machine availability required to tune the system for set-up.

We find a scenario where the patterns and data set are so large that it moves beyond where rule-based programming is feasible. Over time and through iterations, a database will eventually be built and the behavior of the decorating machine will evolve to where the interaction with the icing already deposited and that coming from the nozzle will be understood and the robot can process accordingly.

Reduction in Programming

To realize greater flexibility, manufacturing has come to depend on robotic automation to deliver incrementally better levels of customization for production and packaging. One of the greatest barriers to deployment and the largest complaint from users of industrial robots is the programming.  Many have asked why they must become proficient in dedicated languages to accomplish moderately straight forward tasks using robots or mechatronics as a whole. The cloud offers solutions to these challenges today and offers even greater promise for the future.

Manufacturers have used networks in the manner defined by cloud computing where programs are stored remotely and shared across networks. If a cell installed in California is to be replicated in Beijing, a back-up located on a server is transferred to the machine, a calibration routine is implemented, and the program is shared. This effectively enables an operator in China to leverage the development or work done by a programmer in California. As languages become increasingly open, algorithms and canned routines will be available in the cloud so that programmers can pull blocks as opposed to always having to program from scratch.

Machines are just beginning to gain the ability to search for these blocks and with certain conditions implement them to affect their activities dynamically. In another example, a recycling plant uses robots to pick glass from a paper line. Today the robot is programmed to identify and remove hundreds of unique types of glass and sort them for optimal recycling. The robot determines all the known products using an onboard processor, which would have been programmed by identifying each product with a local camera.  Not only is training the system to recognize hundreds of unique glass types cumbersome and prone to error, it leaves the system unable to adapt to unknown parameters and foreign materials.

If, however, the recycling system were to harness computational capabilities and information from the cloud, it might search terabytes of information to identify an object previously unseen at this system’s location. This would function very similar to how web crawlers search the web today for any other type of information when keyed into a computer or smart device. In this scenario once the item is matched to an image in the cloud, a resulting action would be performed as the image is crowded or grouped into a product class or family which would instruct the robot how to manipulate and place the item.

This now reduces the programming requirements for a system while simultaneously expanding its flexibility almost infinitely. The result is a system which costs significantly less to deploy and provides much greater economic value to the manufacturers or recycler in this example.

Ecosystem Drivers

The concept of cloud manufacturing is not solely driven by the demand for ever-increasing levels of flexibility and efficiency in deploying automated systems.  As noted earlier, there is a supply side effect where technology and networks are now enabling higher levels of speed and low-cost processing previously unavailable. Factory automation and robotics must begin to view themselves not as industrial islands, but as devices within an information ecosystem. Historically, manufacturing equipment’s only connection to its environment included a power source, input of raw materials and output of processed goods. As such it was not adaptable to any form of change.  During the industrial revolution while goods were finally being made cost-effective to where consumers could afford items previously considered a luxury, buyers were offered any color car they wanted from Ford as long as it was black. The industry focused on employing technology to enable mechanical processes to produce faster and more consistent products but flexibility was not an essential requirement.


As manufacturing begins participating in the information revolution, machinery and automation will generate and consume greater amounts of data to where they can offer higher levels of quality through dynamic process control, provide the flexibility to satisfy and insatiable consumer appetite for mass customization, and ultimately decrease costs of implementation through learned heuristics. Unlike the productivity gains of the Henry Ford era, today’s gains will be driven though better utilizing processing information technologies.

It can be expected that over the coming years that manufacturing will more fully capitalize on the information ecosystem surrounding it. This ecosystem spans the networking and data storage industries to the human machine interfaces currently being deployed by consumer electronics manufacturers and gaming technologies. As the automation industry begins its reach into the cloud, manufacturing communities will not only improve productivity, they will begin to reclaim the prominence the industry once claimed in the economy.

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