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According to analyst firm Gartner, within the next five years two manufacturing technologies will achieve the “plateau of productivity,” or the stage where they drive transformational impact on business outcomes: the internet of things for manufacturing operations, and cloud computing in manufacturing operations.1

This means that manufacturers have largely completed their industrial internet of things (IIoT) pilots and are reaching mid- to late-stage adoption, with many having implemented IIoT and cloud projects in support of operations.

In the process industry, while the term IIoT may have emerged through IT-led initiatives over the last decade, the concept is certainly not new. Operational leaders have been managing real-time process control networks for decades and generating growing amounts of data.

Despite their history with the IIoT, many process industry organisations are still facing data architecture challenges that prohibit them from realising the full benefit of their IIoT and cloud investments. Fortunately, a solution is at hand in the form of hybrid data architectures coupled with advanced analytics applications.

IIoT and the cloud

While the earliest wave of IIoT was for use in smart products and machines, IIoT has many applications to address common industrial operational challenges. These include optimising supply chain management and reducing inventory, improving overall equipment effectiveness and asset reliability, transitioning to more agile modes of production, and other initiatives.

IIoT implementations ensure more real-time data can be accessed, collected, and analysed quickly. This enables process engineers and operators to make just in time—or better yet proactive—remediation decisions to improve product quality, reduce waste, and optimise operations.

Via the internet, IIoT implementations can also directly access the near limitless computing power and scalability of the cloud. The volume, variability, and speed of process data is growing by an order of magnitude every few years.

Therefore, only IIoT architectures are suited for compute-intensive Industry 4.0 innovations, such as machine learning, digital twins, augmented reality simulations, and autonomous robots. On-premises server capacity cannot be scaled up on-demand, making it very difficult for these types of systems to keep up with the CPU loads required by the aforementioned Industry 4.0 use cases.

Cloud computing for manufacturing operations

In the arena of cloud computing for manufacturing operations, Gartner indicates the industry is currently in the “trough of disillusionment.” These lowered expectations are largely based on the unproven idea that IIoT and other databases need to be fed into an industrial datalake as the single source of truth, with ubiquitous access provided to all users worldwide.

Following this path, the bridging of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) means replacing existing process historians with a cloud-based data lake. However, on-premises OT servers, such as these historians, often hold the most valuable operational data.

These are the rich data archives, with context, needed to ensure initiatives, such as predictive maintenance via machine learning, are successful. Experiments to move or replicate this OT data in the cloud have proven to be expensive and time-consuming for most organisations.

The primary issue to solve, then, is blending the legacy technology of on-premises brownfield sensors and data infrastructure with the “born in the cloud” IIoT greenfield model, where sensor data is streamed directly to the cloud for storage.

Hybrid data architectures for IIoT implementation

To address this issue, process manufacturers should take a hybrid approach with their data architectures to harness the benefits of combined access to OT, IIoT and other data. This will enable them to:

  • Make use of on-premises data, whether it is connected or disconnected from the internet.
  • Stream selected data to the cloud to take advantage of advanced analytics and machine learning opportunities.
  • Integrate artificial intelligence/machine learning into industrial processes.
  • Leverage the skills of employees with process domain expertise.
  • Use the cloud to lower data acquisition, storage, and access costs.

This stage between traditional manufacturing data infrastructure and cloud-native data is known as hybrid. A hybrid data architecture is not a rip-and-replace approach, but instead leverages the best of the cloud and the on-premises (or edge) data to provide a continuum of access.

In the hybrid model, on-premises or edge data is used for real-time decision-making where low latency is required. Cloud-native IIoT data is added for global reporting or compute-intensive tasks, like machine learning (Figure 1).

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