Cloud-based software and services have become commonplace over the last decade. Consumers have been the first and most enthusiastic to embrace these offerings and delivery models, but industrial adoption has been slower and more measured. More recently, as expertise and staffing have become scarce, the ability to centralise data and information for enterprise-wide visibility and analysis while reducing the cost and complexity of on-premises infrastructure has prompted manufacturers to migrate to the cloud. Today, many industrial organisations are at ease with cloud-based applications.

Data collection from complex equipment on the shop floor is becoming increasingly important. The increasing availability of smart machine and connected factory data provides organisations with more opportunities to operate as efficiently and safely as possible – the full promise of data availability and Industry 4.0. As machines become more complex, intelligent, and networked, they face a dual challenge.

To manage increasingly software-driven equipment, organisations must first be able to easily deploy software. Second, they must run, monitor, and control applications that link machine and factory data to the cloud for performance analysis and advanced applications like predictive maintenance. These applications rely on reliable shop floor data but face bandwidth and latency constraints.

Edge Computing provides the means to simplify software deployment on machines, process data, and connect what actually happens on the shop floor to the cloud. It is a key technology for operational and engineering teams to know.

What is Edge Computing?

Remote servers and clusters in the cloud that provide massive data storage and processing are a world away from the factory floor. They are not designed to withstand the harsh conditions that exist there. More importantly, remote servers and clusters are unsuitable for collecting real-time data at operational locations, especially where bandwidth is limited. As a result, organisations must bring computing power to the manufacturing line or embed it on-machine in order to capture critical real-time data.

Edge Computing refers to computing power deployed at “edge” locations such as factory floors, machine shops, remote equipment, and manufacturing sites, which are located at the edge of corporate or industrial networks where data is generated. It has numerous applications ranging from machining to finished products, as well as industrial assets such as power plants, oil pipelines, and water and wastewater facilities.

Edge computing connects what happens at the individual machine level, factory-wide supervisory control, and the cloud. As a result, it is a critical technology that enables Industry 4.0 and accelerates digitalization at the ground level.

Smart machines and the connected factory

Individual machines are becoming smarter and more connected, with more sensors and logic. They form the larger factory network, which includes edge-to-enterprise connectivity and data management. The ability to embed Edge Computing platforms into smart machines is a natural extension that brings compute capability on-machine, increasing the value of equipment with software, and extending the lifecycle of equipment.

Edge Computing reliability eliminates concerns about data loss, networking, and information or access not being available when needed. It can address processing requirements where bandwidth and latency are issues for edge-to-enterprise connectivity when equipped with local historians and local data storage.

Specifically, purpose-built Edge Computing platforms bring four key benefits to machines on the shop floor – reliability, flexible software deployment, cybersecurity and OT/IT convergence.

Reliability and uptime

Modern Edge Computing platforms are built with operational technology (OT) in mind where machines and equipment are expected to have long lives and operate continuously without downtime or, inversely, provide maximum availability. The ideal platform is available in industrial forms that can withstand heat, vibration, and other environmental facts with Class I Div 2 UL certification going far beyond simple industrial PCs (IPCs).

Edge Computing platforms offer built-in redundancy to ensure machine software or supervisory control and historian runs without any unplanned downtime. They can be serviced while in operation. The net result is computing capability close to critical equipment that ensures reliable machine performance and non-stop data capture. This combination of uptime and efficiency offers the opportunity to improve yield, OEE, or other performance metrics.

Flexible software deployment with virtualization

An Edge Computing platform brings traditional IT capabilities to enable smart machines. The ability to deploy software on a local compute platform eliminates the need for operators to become software programmers and allows teams to standardize software deployment and management on machines. This provides a fast means to pursue new functionality and capabilities through software deployment.

Edge Computing platforms also bring an important capability from the IT world to the shop floor: application virtualization. With virtualization built into Edge Computing, teams are able to run multiple software applications concurrently in a single compute platform, rather than managing multiple IPCs for individual software applications. The ability to deploy layered software close to equipment – or start with a single application with room to grow – provides significant flexibility to increase digitalization and connectivity over time.

Ideal compute platforms also are agnostic, supporting industrial software from AVEVA, PTC, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, Siemens, and others, in configurations that are pre-validated and tested. Thin-client management tools can be used so that a new set of mobile devices and other internet connected solutions can be used to extend operations and maintenance outside of the traditional control room and plant floor.

Cyber Security

Cybersecurity is still an important consideration in the industrial environment, where malware can cause equipment to fail. Manufacturing equipment must be secure as well as discoverable on industrial networks for regular patching and updating to address potential risks. As a layer between supervisory control and control/PLCs, an Edge Computing platform makes it possible to run third-party cybersecurity software while also ensuring that equipment is visible for management in larger factory settings and protected by standard OS security features.

Edge Computing also provides fundamental cybersecurity features such as IP address management and role-based access, as well as secure design based on IEC 62443 standards. All of these things are necessary for safe machines and a safe industrial manufacturing environment.

OT/IT convergence

Edge Computing, in addition to adding new features and capabilities to equipment, converges OT and IT technology, practises, and networks. Modern Edge Computing platforms enable teams to quickly update the IT needed for IIoT, such as how machines, applications, and systems collect, transmit, and process valuable data.

Simultaneously, they enable easy plug-and-play deployment by OT teams without IT support, while also meeting IT requirements for security, interoperability, and support. Edge Computing platforms are thus designed for the operational environment while bringing traditional IT to manufacturing settings. Furthermore, modern remote edge-support services provide simple and secure web-based access from any location to manage the health and performance of multiple Edge Computing platforms, as well as transmit, store, and retrieve platform templates for remote backup and restore.

Accelerate digital transformation

Modern Edge Computing platforms bring computing power to machines and processes on the shop floor by incorporating built-in virtualization, redundancy, and automated data protection and application recovery. It enables operational and maintenance teams to deploy new capabilities for capturing and analysing machine data.

Operators and engineering teams alike are being asked to use equipment data for better efficiency and safety, as well as to prepare for analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning as Industry 4.0 progresses (ML). Edge Computing enables machine shops to enable these capabilities, as well as related value-add services, in a simple but powerful platform that should be on the radars of manufacturing leaders.