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Edging away from downtime


Marc Garner, VP, secure power division, Schneider Electric UK&I explores how to minimise downtime in industrial edge computing environments.

Today, increased levels of automation, advanced robotics, AI and machine learning are driving unprecedented change inside factory environments. With growing levels of complexity, these applications demand secure, on-site computing systems that offer the user high levels of security, ultra-fast connectivity and, above all, great resilience.

With today’s short lead times, emphasis on fast deliveries and tight profit margins, keeping downtime to a minimum is a key concern for manufacturers.

As such, Smart Manufacturing is driving a new wave of IT technologies into industrial spaces, which requires edge computing systems that ensure privacy and data security, while guaranteeing uptime and addressing bandwidth requirements that have become crucial to operations.

Identifying the edge application

For Industry 4.0, edge computing bridges the gap between cloud and on-premise infrastructure. The traditional drawback of the cloud has been high levels of latency or low response times, caused by the distance between the data centre supporting it and the location of the application.

Edge computing offers the best of both worlds, placing physical infrastructure and business-critical IT closer to the point of use, enabling the user to combine the benefits of cloud computing with the ultra-fast response times required by on-site equipment.

Applications that benefit from edge computing can, in general, be subdivided into three categories, each with their own specific designs and benefits. They include, IT facilities; commercial and regional offices; and Industrial or harsh environments.

The latter often comprises ruggedised micro data centres deployed in indoor or outdoor locations, where ambient environmental conditions are difficult to control. Challenges include a wide range of temperature or humidity conditions, water hazards, the presence of dust or other contaminants, and the need to protect computer systems from collisions and vibrations, as well as the obvious need for physical security to guard against unauthorised access.

Defining the industrial edge

For industrial operators to capture the benefits of increased automation, they cannot rely on cloud-technology alone. According to McKinsey, Industry 4.0 is a term referring to the increased digitisation of the manufacturing sector, driven by, “the rise in data volumes, computational power and connectivity; and business intelligence capabilities, new forms of human-machine interfaces [including] augmented reality systems; and improvements in … advanced robotics and 3-D printing.”

Industrial edge data centres are IT infrastructure systems containing integrated racks, power and cooling, and distributed across a number of geographical locations to enable endpoints on the network. When deployed within industrial manufacturing plants or distribution centres, the application is referred to as the ‘industrial edge.’ 

Given the increasing importance of computing in factory and industrial automation systems, it is inevitable that greater numbers of edge computing systems will be installed in these harsh and industrialised environments.

To achieve the shortest possible ROI and gain both the resilience and speed demanded by AI, robotics and other Industry 4.0 technologies, manufacturers must properly measure asset performance, rapidly identify any problem areas, and make any crucial changes in real-time that will drastically improve their operations.

This is also where on-premise IT becomes critical and is where the majority of the data capture occurs. Industry 4.0 requires that computing systems are tightly integrated into the manufacturing process, but it also means that resilience and high availability become key design concerns for the accompanying edge infrastructure.

Building a resilient industrial edge

Downtime is the curse of any manufacturing operation and any integrated IT systems cannot afford to add to the risk of lost production. A 2016 study by Aberdeen Group, found that 82% of companies had experienced unplanned downtime in the previous three years, which could cost an average of $260,000 per hour. Industrial edge systems, therefore, must be built to the highest standards of availability, if necessary, to Tier III, which promises an uptime of 99.98% or an average of 1.58hr of downtime per year.

Tier I level data centres, with 99.67% uptime, for example, can be down for 28.82hr per year. In the example above, such a difference in downtime could cost in upwards of $7m per year. Clearly, an investment in improved uptime delivers clear benefits to the bottom line.

Given the industrialised environments in which manufacturing operations take place, and the high level of potential contaminants, attention must be paid to the enclosures, which must remain robust to protect the IT from downtime. Space is likely to be at a premium too, so care must be taken to ensure that the system can be deployed in spaces that weren’t designed for IT.

Ruggedised IT enclosures can provide optimum performance and reliable operation in harsh environments. Some come in wall-mounted designs to make the best use of space, leaving the factory floor clear for manufacturing equipment.

Careful consideration of the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) will safeguard against disruptions to power, while lithium-Ion (li-ion) batteries can also provide an energy efficient backup source, which frees up physical space because of their small size, and offers a longer lifecycle.

Li-ion UPS are also able to operate over a broader temperature range and offer ease of monitoring thanks to intelligent sensors that help to reduce operating costs while increasing their reliability.Thereby improving the ability of an industrial plant to withstand power disruptions.

Cooling is also essential for reliability in any IT environment, and in industrial spaces, self-contained air conditioners can be fitted to ruggedised enclosures to regulate internal temperature and humidity without incurring the risk of environmental contamination.

Yet no matter how reliable the hardware equipment is, the key to minimising downtime is via real time monitoring and management, ensuring any faults can be proactively anticipated, repaired and downtime mitigated.  

Software drives uptime

To ensure high levels of resilience software and security are crucial. The latter can take many forms including physical security to protect against unauthorised access on-site, as well as next-generation software systems offering advanced protection from cyber attack.

For many operators, the ability to leverage a platform that brings together disparate systems including edge, building control and industrial process offers many benefits, including end-to-end visibility.

At the edge, next-generation Data Centre Infrastructure Management (DCIM) software leverages AI, data analytics, cloud and secure mobile applications to monitor the IT systems in real-time. Should downtime occur, the user can quickly dispatch service personnel to respond to any issues.

The beauty of such management software is that it can be used by service organisations to provide support where dedicated technical personnel aren’t located on site, thereby offering increased levels of resilience in smart manufacturing.

Today the growth of IT in industrial automation is driving new innovation that allows manufacturers to introduce new products and services far faster and with greater reliability. This enables Industrial organisations to execute their business strategies more successfully, drive productivity and deliver improved experiences to customers.

Vendors, likewise, are innovating edge computing solutions and services to minimise the risk of downtime in industrial environments, and as smart manufacturing increases via highly automated and advanced robotic systems, there is undoubtedly a need for a resilient industrial edge.

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