The phrase “Cloud Computing” has been with us for a couple of decades now, used as a short-hand for a number of things: remote storage; applications hosted on servers with data shown on our screens; and, in general, the full abstraction of where most Internet features actually reside. For example:
- Siri voice recognition is not performed on the iPhone. Instead, the voice file is sent to an Apple server “in the Cloud” where algorithms analyze the noises, discern specific speech sounds, figure out the likely words and sentences, and then perform the function requested. What you see on your iPhone is the end of the process completed in the cloud.
- The Cloud’s remote storage capabilities are most commonly used for photo storage. The Google Photos application moves your Android photos onto Google’s servers, where they can be stored, edited and shared. Photo storage is just one example, though.
There are many advantages to Cloud Computing, such as storage “somewhere else,” access to our data as we drive around town or fly around the world, and applications that can harness the computing power of remote servers and even supercomputers. The one common benefit? You will always have the same user experience when you access your data, no matter where you are, as long as you have a reliable Internet connection.
But Cloud Computing does have some disadvantages, which has led many manufacturers to move to Fog Computing. To understand Fog Computing, let’s first consider what modern high-tech factories are doing today – and what we anticipate they’ll be doing in a few years.
Facilities for high value and high customization manufacturing processes have been updating their production line equipment with more customizable technology and connecting them to the factory’s servers. It is easy to call this an example of the Internet of Things, but it is more accurate to refer to this trend as Industry 4.0. Put simply, by measuring, configuring, and controlling robots and fabrication fixtures via a centralized server, manufacturers can better analyze their productivity and efficiency. They can reconfigure equipment for more customization on their products. They can also refine the synchronization of their production processes with inbound and outbound shipment schedules. This allows them to accommodate component delivery delays as needed and more accurately plan resources needed for final product packing.
However, each of these automated processes generates massive amounts of data. Commands are constantly sent to equipment as product moves down the line. Equipment monitoring systems are active around-the-clock, conducting predictive data analysis and notifying maintenance workers of outages or preventative steps that need to be taken to prevent equipment failure.
Yet, Cloud Computing isn’t ideally designed to support this level of data common to manufacturing environments today – and it certainly won’t be able to handle the global transition to Industry 4.0 technologies when that time comes. Here’s why:
Cloud Computing has a latency issue; it can’t respond fast enough to a request for data. While a one second delay isn’t too long for a Siri response, it is an eternity to an idle piece of manufacturing equipment. Latency only gets worse as the distance between the manufacturing equipment and server increases and there are more (Internet routing) nodes that need to be traversed. The solution? Many factories bring the Cloud down to where all of the data is generated and used. When this Cloud is lowered down to ground level, it is Fog.
One of the primary advantages of Fog Computing in manufacturing is that latency is very short – the sensors and data are very close together. All of the data, applications and processing can be handled locally . While the huge amount of data generated still needs to be stored somewhere, storing it remotely (or via the Cloud) offers no advantages. After all, the factory isn’t traveling – the machines and the data are always at the same location. Local storage facilitates local processing which means more quickly transmitted results and more consistent production tempos.
Bottom line: Fog Computing provides manufacturers with the advantages of Cloud Computing without the disadvantages.
In fact, this shift from Cloud Computing to Fog Computing is one of the most impactful changes happening in manufacturing today. Aeronautics, automobile, high-capacity network equipment, pharmaceutical and medical equipment all require highly automated, highly monitored factories. The workers in these factories are more highly skilled, more versatile and flexible than in generations past. And the people who control the critical equipment, who respond to issues, and perform timely maintenance are information workers too. They need access to core applications, virtual reality presentations of assemblies, and performance data. But all of this requires a highly mobile computing environment capable of providing reliable, real-time accessibility to the data being captured and analyzed by automated factory systems.
Mobile tablet PCs are poised to play a central role in the implementation of manufacturers’ Industry 4.0 technologies . Plants will be going completely paperless, and manufacturers need tablet PCs that can be connected to Fog Computing networks in the factory, just as critically as the manufacturing equipment, to aid in workers’ data capture and analysis across the factory floor.
We’ll dig into the specific role of rugged mobile technologies in manufacturing in the coming weeks. In the meantime, check out our recent discussions regarding new rugged tablet I/O standards that have been introduced in preparation for manufacturing’s move to more automated and mobility-driven operations: