Taking Connected Factories Global: AI at the Edge, In the Cloud, and Embedded

Automation has made manufacturing more advanced than ever before and connected. Connected factories with dedicated automation are delivering massive value especially given how advanced, secure, and fast public, private, and hybrid clouds have become.

Automation is not new, and it dates to Henry Ford’s first “moving” production line in 1913, which reduced the time it took to build an automobile to two hours down from ten. Today, automation is part of all connected factories that mass produces products, but faster production is just table stakes. Quality is better – safety is better – yields are better – and profits are higher. 

We caught up with Jeff Li, Senior Director, Risk, Governance, Partners, and Projects at ConnX, a systems integrator and managed service provider based near Princeton, New Jersey, which serves Fortune 500 companies with advanced edge computing, networking, and cloud services. Li has been driving solution development over the last few years, which combines human and machine communications in real-time, and said, “Convergence today is completely different than it was a decade or two ago when network and application convergence was more about the combination of voice and data. Today – it’s all about people and machines, enabled by technologies and amazing enterprise applications that are emerging every day.”

“What many businesses don’t realize is that they can gather tremendous, extremely valuable insights straight to the factory floor that can enhance their products and services – and make them more competitive and profitable,” Li said. “By implementing smart edge technologies, combined with high-speed private networking and cloud-first enterprise applications, large manufacturing companies – even those who have factories located around the world – can now benefit from ‘remote control’ and visibility into how machines and people are working in harmony to increase yield, improve safety, and manage supply chains more efficiently.”

Writing in a blog, Li also said, “Combining smart manufacturing processes and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) technology with the cloud can bring businesses crucial data that can improve operations, enhance scalability, and even boost sales.”

So how does Li describe Industry 4.0 made global with edge-to-edge observability?

“Smart manufacturing relies on digital information technology and computer-integrated manufacturing processes to automate production in the most classic sense of the idea, but what we’re seeing today is a seamless convergence of people and things,” Li explained. “Some people call this co-botting, meaning that experts in manufacturing plants, especially for very expensive and sophisticated equipment, work alongside and as part of autonomous systems to optimize the value – to keep things moving – and to ensure the data being generated by sensors, actuators, and gateways is flowing locally and globally.” 

Li said the value is in flexibility, as a finely tuned smart manufacturing ecosystem improves everything in connected factories, from inventory levels to supply chain dynamics and even staffing up and down for peak time periods. With fewer people on high-tech factory floors, businesses also reduce workplace injuries and hazards when compared to more traditional manufacturing and create better jobs with less routine work and generally the kind of tasks that most people don’t enjoy performing. 

The Industrial Internet of Things goes beyond personal devices to provide automation and process improvements for a variety of industrial operations. According to GE, IIoT devices can “monitor, collect, exchange, analyze, and deliver valuable new insights,” which can “help drive smarter, faster business decisions for industrial companies.” Sectors such as manufacturing, logistics, oil and gas, energy utilities, mining, transportation, aviation, and more all connect users to facilities using the IIoT. 

We asked Li how the IIoT depends on edge and cloud computing, as well as edge (mesh) and long haul (cloud) networking. “One of the primary concerns with using IoT in manufacturing and other sectors is that it generates a lot of data,” Li said, “and until recently, gathering, processing, and analyzing that data was expensive and challenging. Businesses needed a place to be able to store and access that data, and they turned to the cloud and to the IoT cores from companies like Microsoft Azure and AWS.” 

Li pointed to a recent Rockwell Automation report that confirmed that the State of Smart Manufacturing is strong. “As the world’s largest company dedicated to industrial automation and digital transformation, their 8th annual “State of Smart Manufacturing Report, which surveyed more than 1,350 manufacturers across 13 of the leading manufacturing countries, Rockwell revealed a deep focus on delivering profitable growth while also improving quality.” 

The report reveals a focus on delivering profitable growth without sacrificing quality, an emphasis on accessing data’s true potential, and increasing the adoption of technology to build resilience, enable agility, increase sustainability, and address workforce challenges.

Key global findings include:

  • Twice as many manufacturers believe their organization lacks the technology needed to outpace the competition, as compared to 2022.
  • 4 out of 5 manufacturers still lack an end-to-end supply chain planning solution.
  • Cybersecurity risks rank highest as the obstacle respondents are looking to mitigate with smart manufacturing initiatives.
  • 45 percent of manufacturers cite “improving quality” as the main positive outcome they want to achieve with smart manufacturing initiatives.
  • 89 percent of manufacturers plan to maintain or grow employment due to technology adoption. Additionally, 36 percent of respondents believe they will be able to repurpose existing workers due to their increasing use of technology.
  • Of the 95 percent of manufacturers who have formal or informal ESG policies in place, 42 percent cite “improving efficiencies” as the top driving factor for pursuing ESG initiatives.

“With the cloud, managers and employees can monitor machinery from any location,” Li said, and that is a next-level game changer. “We are seeing a huge uptake in globally connected factories – manufacturers can now fully and securely connect hundreds of locations and thousands of machines, technicians, and operators when those locations are connected to the cloud. Not only are operations improved, but the data collected and analyzed is fundamental to future success and competitiveness.”

With intelligent notification and alerts, connected machines and devices can immediately let technicians know when problems occur on the automation assembly line and notify them of factory equipment requiring maintenance. 

“Connecting smart factories to the cloud gives businesses additional flexibility by letting employees work from virtually anywhere in the world,” Li said, “and by connecting people and machines with computer vision, voice, messaging, and video support from experts who may be stationed halfway around the world, improvements are profound.”

According to Microsoft, a long-time ConnX partner which offers Azure solutions to manufacturers, this data can help sales teams increase productivity “by using customer and service data to identify cross-sell and up-sell opportunities.” With this data, businesses know which products are being sold and can use IIoT data to create specialized and targeted offerings for customers. 

Li also said that there is great promise in bridging IT and OT – in the same way that voice and data converged over a decade ago. “Our networks are faster, more secure, more flexible as wires are no longer needed, and our cloud computing across multiple clouds is constantly advancing to support incredibly sophisticated applications. The key is to bring together IT and OT – people and machines – the cloud and the edge. This is why we built our Maestro platform, rich with AI, to orchestrate and optimize Industry 4.0 and serve our large enterprise customers better.”

With more access to affordable global networking at very high speeds (for example, the AI SD-WAN ConnX implements and manages with advantages from partners including Juniper Networks, Cisco, AudioCodes, and others), connected factories have grown from the vision to move from a traditional manufacturing design to fully connected, secure and robust systems that relay data in real-time and bring extremely valuable data and analytics to bear.

Matt Vulpis

Matt Vulpis is a fresh out of college writer/journalist, already with a myriad of published articles across a variety of topics and industries. He is very passionate about writing, as well as sports, and television/film. While he enjoys writing articles pertaining to business tech, he wants to one day write a TV show as a head screenwriter. He has a bachelors in journalism with a minor in sports studies from Quinnipiac University.

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