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Industry at the edge

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By George Senzere, solutions architect: Secure Power at Schneider Electric

Edge computing is fast becoming an essential part of industrial environments, bringing computing, storage, and analytics closer to where content is created or consumed. The edge now enables real-time processing and decision-making by eliminating cloud latency.

In essence, industrial edge computing is now a subset of edge computing and coupled with the benefits of Industry 4.0, manufacturers can now take advantage of technological innovations such as data analytics, digital twin, artificial intelligence (AI), and autonomous robotics.

These technologies drive increased productivity, reliability, reduced production cost, and better-informed decisions throughout the industrial process.

Technology innovation in industry

As mentioned, there are several Industry 4.0 driven technologies that are impacting the industrial edge.

A digital twin, which is a dynamic, current representation of a physical object of system, is in essence the connection between physical and digital worlds, evolving with real-time input from sensors and more.

In the case of industrial edge computing, the digital twin can assist in predicting outcomes while solving physical issues faster by detecting them sooner. It can therefore achieve (and realise the benefits of) a complete digital footprint of product lifecycle.

Artificial intelligence drives benefits throughout the value chain, and also acts as the foundation for technology innovations such as autonomous robotics that perform tasks without explicit human control.

In manufacturing environments for example, machines can communicate with other machines (M2M) and humans, realising intuitive collaboration.  Autonomous robotics can therefore enhance manufacturing efficiency and productivity.

Lastly, industrial environments can leverage data analytics to increase productivity with quality assurance and defect tracking, minimising risk with conditional monitoring and predictive maintenance.

Calculated IT integration

To realise the above, new, integrated IT systems need to be introduced to provide sufficient computing power to enable technological innovation. Furthermore, these systems must be rolled out without impacting continuity, security, and reliability.

Unlike typical IT environments, industrial environments have unique challenges such as harsh conditions and safety issues, which put extra pressure on IT personnel.

There are therefore many challenges and considerations when deploying the edge as on-premises datacentres in industrial environments:

 Environmental challenges – Industrial environments usually have less controlled ambient conditions with fluctuating temperatures and humidity levels.  Combined with dust particles or other contaminants and a higher potential for water leaks it can spell disaster for IT equipment.

Manageability – IT equipment is normally distributed throughout an industrial environment. Furthermore, there is typically very little IT staff on the plant floor to monitor and manage the edge IT.

This distributed layout combined with the limited presence of qualified IT staff, drives management challenges such as knowing where the edge IT cabinet is located, whether it’s online, and being aware of risks to downtime.

Cyber security – The proliferation of IIoT represents more cyber security risks than before. These cyber-attacks will threaten the uptime of IT and OT systems as well as data privacy (enterprise and customer data alike).

To address these challenges and minimise downtime risks, IT personnel need to introduce resilient edge computing solutions into industrial environments. These solutions also need to adopt best practices for deployment in these environments.

  • Choose IT enclosures designed for manufacturing environments.
  • Use effective power protection and cooling approach.
  • Implement cyber security best practices.
  • Invest in monitoring and management software.
  • Leverage an ecosystem of partners to provide complete edge solution.
IT personnel need to introduce resilient edge computing solutions into industrial environments. Image credit: Gerd Altmann | Pixabay
IT personnel need to introduce resilient edge computing solutions into industrial environments. Image credit: Gerd Altmann | Pixabay