Martyn Williams, Managing Director of industrial software expert, COPA-DATA UK, examines the role of edge computing in smart factories
According to Google Trends data, worldwide searches for “edge computing” have increased tenfold during the last 5 years; Google alone boasts 340 million search results for the phrase. Among the noise, however — and the varying definitions of edge computing — the technology has become somewhat misunderstood.
Edge computing describes a distributed version of computation that brings information analysis closer to the data source. In a factory setting, this might be in the form of data processing taking place at the machine level. Unlike centralised models, in which information would be sent to a data centre or the cloud, edge computing allows data capture, analysis and action to be performed on the edge of a process — hence the name.
Despite its capabilities, edge computing is not a replacement for centralised data storage methods or an alternative to other data processing and management technologies. In fact, these architectures must work together to be truly beneficial. So, are edge devices just a new brand of the same technology? Not exactly.
Edge devices are unique in the sense that they provide first-stage data processing before sending this information elsewhere. Edge devices can also act on this data within the realms of the device itself, thanks to their intelligent capabilities.
This can be achieved using forms of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to facilitate decision making. Because everything takes place on the device, this method can significantly reduce latency, removing the time spent between sharing this information with distant data centres and awaiting feedback.
In practice, this could help a manufacturer to avoid critical failures and downtime. In an oil and gas application, for example, an edge device could detect a dangerously high pressure in a pipeline. Rather than waiting for this data to be processed elsewhere and sent back to a site manager, the device could trigger instant shut-offs or adaptations to avoid a disaster.
Similarly, this same method can be used to make automated adjustments to a process to improve the outcome, which could be related to energy efficiency, accuracy or productivity.
The ability to effect change based on real-time data already exists in current software platforms. Compatible with most communication protocols, software such as COPA-DATA’s zenon can pull data from a variety of equipment, sensors and vertical systems to provide operators with a real-time dashboard of facility wide insights. This can alert users to disruptions in production and highlight potential problems.
In fact, research suggests that the average smart factory produces five petabytes of data every week — that’s five million gigabytes or the equivalent of more than 300,000 16 gigabyte iPhones. Manufacturing’s big data has quickly become colossal and edge computing provides a way to reduce the volume of data being sent to a centralised space.
For industries that rely on data integrity for compliance, deploying edge computing can become a vital part of a data management strategy. Pharmaceutical manufacturers, for example, must comply with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 21 CFR part 11 regulation.
This standard applies to drug manufacturers and biotech companies and requires these organisations to keep an accurate audit trail and electronic records. EU GMP Annex 11 is the European equivalent. In these industries, on-edge analysis of data can reduce the volume of information being sent to the cloud or data centre. Crucially, this ensures that time sensitive data is not lost in the flood of information.
Although some processes do benefit from instant data analysis, smart factories cannot work in silos. The rise of the edge does not mark the downfall of other data management technologies. In fact, it reinforces their necessity.
Software platforms that can communicate with edge devices are essential to make edge technology scalable. Moreover, platforms that can collect, analyse and visualise data from the edge — while compiling this with a variety of other types of equipment — are essential to construct a holistic view of a factory’s operations.
Realistically, most manufacturing facilities are not in a position for the widespread deployment of edge devices or platforms to converge these technologies. Instead, manufacturers need scalable options in their journey to digitalisation; independent software may well be the glue that makes this possible.