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Converging at the Edge

26 June 2019

The benefits of taking the large amount of repetitive data created by machines and automated systems and processing it locally are huge. Edge computing takes the pressure off existing networks, data storage, potentially costly cloud services and software applications. Data is turned into useful information closer to its point of origin and more importantly, in real time. Chris Evans makes the case for a quick adoption of edge computing.

Edge computing means that factory floor technology can be used to provide streamlined information that can then become operational intelligence once it is interpreted and displayed by crossover applications sitting in the “Edge” layer. The Edge layer provides data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and is the gateway to the higher IT level applications and cloud services that can truly deliver Smart Manufacturing and embrace the principles of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

But rewind….

How did we get here that quickly and isn’t it a huge jump to take on “Edge” when other aspects of your enterprise are probably still lagging behind?

Essentially no, it isn’t such a big step, existing products such as Mitsubishi Electric’s C-Controller module for its iQ-R Series PLC platform already provide Edge computing functionality. With products that offer database connectivity and data management combined with standardised connectivity such as OPC UA, offering reliable and secure data communications between the manufacturing-level and IT-level systems, Edge is very much here already.

It is true that the pace of development has accelerated somewhat: first we had automation systems based on logic driven PLCs, then over the course of some decades the PLCs became more intelligent and we started getting data from them into HMIs and SCADA platforms. After that we quickly realised this data could be used in other parts of the organisation, so we started pushing the data to enterprise databases.

Then more recently PLCs got even smarter and started being able to directly push the data straight to enterprise databases, or the cloud. The data volumes became larger, every sensor and inverter started to pile zeros and ones into the PLC which had to put it somewhere - just as the likes of Microsoft, Amazon, IBM and Oracle brought vast, scalable cloud storage and processing resources online.

All this happened at breakneck pace (at least in manufacturing terms) until one day we were left to consider why the heck we were sending all this data to the cloud? Especially when a lot of it is the same or irrelevant and invokes high data processing costs at the cloud level, plus what about security etc.?

It’s at this point that edge computing starts to make a lot of sense and it’s clear why so many businesses are busy organising meetings between production management teams and IT departments. Deciding to aggregate and analyse raw production data closer to the source and only send the relevant information to the higher levels is where edge computing fits in. There are a lot of system improvements and efficiencies to be gained from a modest investment.

For automation professionals who have seen the developments described above unfold, it is very similar to when we first started connecting SCADA to processes but with a more analytical spin on things. This latest development enables us to make important process feedback decisions at - or close to - the source and feedback that information to the process to adjust its performance.

What makes edge computing most valuable to an organization though is the operational and logistical efficiencies that can be achieved through real-time analysis. Making it happen will become a whole lot easier thanks to emerging products and open technologies which will bring with them further benefits.

Open benefits

Help as they say is at hand, from Mitsubishi Electric and its integration partners.

In addition to its global network of automation system integration partners, Mitsubishi Electric is also a member of the EDGECROSS consortium. The group includes major suppliers of IT and factory automation infrastructure including NEC, Oracle, IBM and others. It is responsible for creating an open edge-computing software platform that will provide a universal interface between industrial networks and edge computing functions such as real-time data processing, data model management, security and various application development tools.

Watch this space then, convergence is coming, and it could bring a range of benefits.

Chris Evan is Marketing & Operations Group Manager for Mitsubishi Electric