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The Cloud Settles Over Manufacturing

Expensive investments in industrial equipment aside, the cost of IT alone has been a barrier to entry for small organizations looking to enter the manufacturing sector.

But now, with the proliferation of widely available cloud-based applications and servers on demand, many industries are exploring new possibilities in how they implement their IT infrastructure. Gone are the days where companies must invest in giant server rooms designed to meet the occasional days of peak capacity. Even product testing has migrated to the cloud thanks to advanced modeling and simulation software.

A team of researchers led by Dazhong Wu has predicted that this new IT democratization will revolutionize manufacturing. They will present their conclusions at the ASME 2013 International Manufacturing Science and Engineering Conference (MSEC) in June.

The argument centers on cloud-based manufacturing, previously defined by Dr. Xun Xu of The University of Auckland's Department of Mechanical Engineering as an encapsulation of distributed resources into cloud services that clients can use according to their unique requirements. Available services range from product design, manufacturing, testing, management, and any other stage of a product lifecycle.

The team states that the specific factors that have enabled cloud manufacturing in the past will continue to determine future manufacturing trends. These future predictions are broken down into short and long-term forecasts in three sectors most relevant to manufacturers: design and engineering, manufacturing, and marketing.

A New Norm for Manufacturers

What makes this model so promising is its flexibility and the shared data and resources that the cloud brings to designers and engineers.

According to Wu, a graduate student at Georgia Tech, the manufacturing industry will need a new approach to achieve efficiency and flexibility and is thus looking to the cloud. Says Wu, “The amount of internal expertise they hold is dwarfed by that held by the global mass of people connected through globalization.”

In order to not only accept, but also capitalize on this shift in circumstances, crowdsourcing and collaboration must become the new norm.

The team identifies the driving forces that brought cloud manufacturing to this point as:

  • Emergence of outsourcing models

  • Social networking

  • Ability to pool resources and information

  • Availability of agile and scalable manufacturing systems

The first three factors are essential to enable users to access necessary design data and collaborate across disparate locations. Agility and scalability allow manufacturing systems to easily adjust to the specifications of each product produced through this cooperative process.

Current Challenges

Cloud manufacturing is faced with several obstacles in tailoring existing manufacturing and cloud systems to fit the needs of users and machines situated in geographically disparate locations.

Industrial control systems (ICSs), such as Siemens' Totally Integrated Automation (TIA), are critical components of existing manufacturing models, as they enable inter- and intra-factory communication and collaboration that would otherwise be unavailable.

ICSs also represent the first and perhaps largest hurdle that manufacturers face, as they are essential for the type of machine-to-machine communication that cloud manufacturing enables. Without the development of unified standards for describing the function, structure and behavior of interconnected equipment in the cloud, the team argues that widespread communication between users and machines will remain unavailable.

Additional necessary changes include automating delivery of manufacturing resources and resource visualization, optimizing cloud service models for manufacturing, and identifying suitable partners offering high-quality, low-cost products.

Cloud Manufacturing Going Forward

With regard to design and engineering – the first of three key sectors affected by cloud manufacturing – the team predicts that in the short team cloud manufacturing will provide more affordable computing resources, greater efficiency and ubiquitous access to design information, with a long-term forecast of achieving collaborative design across geographically dispersed environments.

Similarly, manufacturers should expect to see reduced costs, rapid prototyping and improved resource sharing in the near future, creating a global model of what Wu calls “distributed manufacturing.”

The last prediction the team makes is that marketing would be able to improve overall service quality by better meeting customer needs and reducing time-to-market. At that point, cloud manufacturing will transform the role of the customer into one of a “co-creator.”

A comparison between the current supply chain model and the future cloud-based supply chain is shown below.


Wu concludes, “As more research, development, and industry applications are conducted, cloud manufacturing will enable manufacturing enterprises to build virtual and open manufacturing processes, enabling its various stakeholders to connect and do business more seamlessly and cost effectively.”

According to the team, the future holds a web of interactions between users, application providers, and physical resource providers. This approach will ultimately redefine manufacturing to focus on the ever-changing needs of its customers instead of the rigid requirements of OEMs and their suppliers. 

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