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Modern Manufacturing Part I: Control Via The Cloud

The “cloud” has developed an unfortunate reputation for ambiguity and complexity. In reality, cloud technology is all about delivering a flexible, easy and intuitive user experience. No other industry is in need of that more than manufacturing.

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Consider for a moment for the traditional manufacturing floor. Whatever the industry, whatever the parts or products being assembled, each point in the production line involves a complex process for moving from one stage to the next. The smallest hiccup at any point along that line can shut the entire system down until an engineer arrives on site to assess and repair the situation.

Now consider a manufacturing floor plugged in to the cloud. The same production line is monitored in real time using Internet-connected controllers by a field engineer or facility manager who isn’t even on site. That engineer or manager taps into the cloud’s stored data at any time and communicates instantly with the controllers powering the equipment to make changes accordingly.

This is modern manufacturing. New developments in automation and wireless that were once on the fringes of industrial engineering are making their way into more and more facilities around the country. Whether they’re right next to a machine and plugged in via PC, or remote via smartphone or tablet, engineers now have more control thanks to the cloud. Not only can an engineer monitor the production line for quality assurance and status updates, but also to make direct changes to the line without having to set foot inside the factory.

Bottling is a big industry in the United States, and a great example of this practice. One milliliter of measurement is enough to throw an entire bottling system into disarray. An engineer remotely monitoring the fill levels of a bottling facility can use Internet-connected PLCs to program new instructions that would increase or decrease the volume almost instantaneously.

The same can be done within “hard” manufacturing. Robots loading a PC board with components rely on measurements that come down to the sixth-of-an-inch for accuracy. The slightest shift of one component in the wrong direction can break the entire board. Recalibrating the position or reprogramming new instructions for the robot is now possible thanks to the cloud. All the engineer needs is the right information and access via their mobile device.

Regardless of the process – be it controlling liquid levels and physical parts or reconfiguring the steps along an assembly line – cloud manufacturing means more precise monitoring and the constant ability to enhance that process. The cloud improves efficiency, which saves the facility money and energy. More importantly, everyone becomes more productive.

Impacting the bottom line

The cloud offers three big benefits to the manufacturing industry. First, which we’ve already discussed, is efficiency. The ability to constantly monitor the production line remotely lets the engineer responsible for that line keep the operation running as smoothly as possible. Controlling the process means controlling the costs.

Second, cloud manufacturing provides greater flexibility to those who need it. Facilities managing multiple productions on one assembly line can more seamlessly switch between them via the cloud. Once a specific volume or order of one product has been filled, the operations manager can virtually reprogram that line to start another without having to physically switch and program the equipment.

Cloud manufacturing has also helped to cut down on the more cumbersome production issues that eat up field engineers’ time. Let’s use the simple example of self-service ice machines. In the past servicemen would visit the machines when they were broken, only to realize the issue was minor and one that could have easily been addressed remotely. Today, those same servicemen can receive an update via smartphone or tablet to assess whether or not the problem is one that really requires them to come in. That level of insight allows a facility to better budget their staff’s time, and send field engineers where they’re actually needed.

Moving to the cloud

Through all of this one thing is clear: working with the cloud means engineers can do their job. The cloud impacts not just the actual manufacturing process, but all of the maintenance elements that go into running a facility. If you’re a facility manager who wants to move to the cloud, energy efficiency is an easy way to get started. Small, individual functions of a building – lighting, temperature, security – can be controlled via the cloud without requiring a complete overhaul of your existing system.

If you’re ready to move your manufacturing operations to the cloud, some of the industry’s leading solution providers – like Schneider Electric, IDEC, Eaton and Opto 22 – offer tools and resources to help you through the transition. All three can provide a fixed set of options for turnkey integration or send in experts to evaluate the specific equipment in your facility and guide you through the integration process. Opto 22’s newest systems can even attach to any PLC and allow the engineer to go in and remotely control virtually any function.

The “cloud” has developed an unfortunate reputation for ambiguity and complexity. In reality, cloud technology is all about delivering a flexible, easy and intuitive user experience. No other industry is in need of that more than manufacturing. The cloud presents an opportunity to bring manufacturing into the modern age, and engineers on the front lines of those facilities stand to benefit.

In part two of Modern Manufacturing, we’ll take a closer look at the wireless factory floor.

Danny Weiss is Senior Product Manager at Newark element14.

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