Manufacturing operations are experiencing colossal transformations through the strategic integration of technology-based solutions. In the process, companies enhance the quality of their products, cut down operations and maintenance costs, and streamline their workflows. The advent of cloud technologies is revitalizing competition within the manufacturing space, increasing the cognitive power of shop floor equipment, turning facilities into highly reliable and intelligent units.

Why Cloud Technology

Traditional communication channels required heavy investment in IT infrastructure. However, this has subtly changed as on-demand computing services are administered over the internet. The availability of software and gigantic processing power over the internet of things (IoT) provides an avenue for manufacturing entities to exploit workflow tools and automate complex plant floor processes.

In the age of smart manufacturing, cloud technology remains an indispensable utility that allows computers, workers, and production devices to communicate effectively in a bid to optimize productivity. The technology is scalable and is available for any size of a manufacturing facility. Cloud technology solutions are available in the form of Software as a Service (SaaS), Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS).

Practical Applications of Cloud Technology and How they Impact Workflows

Cloud technology provides infinite possibilities with applications ranging from Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), Enterprise Asset Management (EAM), maintenance solutions, industrial automation, remote control, production and demand planning. Cloud technologies are preferred for their abilities to collect, analyze and store vast amounts of data in real-time, as well as for the ease of access to that data.

Below are key application areas of cloud technology in manufacturing and their impacts on workflow improvement on the plant floor.

1. Product Planning and Development

Product planning and development is primarily the backbone of industrial production. Information regarding the design, quantity, choice of materials, finishing processes, packaging and storage information should be merged into the internal communication channels and tied to the supply chain data. This information is leveraged by production managers to prepare production schedules. Anchoring this information on cloud-based systems creates corporate visibility and allows the concerned teams to undertake crucial adjustments required to achieve the production threshold.

Product development entails a series of iterative activities like designing, prototyping and testing. Traditionally, product design relied on manual tools and verification processes. Modern manufacturing facilities are expediting the design and prototyping processes by leveraging the power of the cloud. Complex designs and simulations are undertaken using collaborative Computer-Aided (CAD) Software distributed through the cloud. Remote teams work in unison to convert raw ideas into viable designs that are suitable for manufacturing.

Beyond design, companies can develop the least-cost prototypes to facilitate sustainability and safety tests of their products using cloud-hosted Computer-Aided Manufacturing (CAM) Software. The ability to optimize product quality at the design stage makes it possible for production teams to transition from prototyping to full-scale production smoothly. Other companies host their open-source product designs on cloud systems, allowing interested customers to purchase and download production packages, and replicate them through additive manufacturing processes such as 3D printing. This minimizes the need for companies to invest in heavy production and supply chain facilities

2. Production, Supply Chains and Production Tracking

Production processes require continuous monitoring to retain the quality of the end products. Modern shop floors contain state-of-the-art pieces of equipment that are fitted with condition-monitoring sensors and automation utilities. These monitoring facilities collect large amounts of data at any given time and require complex IT infrastructure to handle it. To address data storage challenges, companies are systematically migrating to cloud servers. The servers enhance data processing speeds and free up the physical storage spaces on the production equipment to improve the efficiency of the machinery.

Decisions on production schedules require frequent and timely updates. Information required to make these decisions has to be readily available and accessible through physical and remote channels. Cloud-based ERP systems provide ample platforms for production teams to match available stocks to actual sales volumes.

ERP applications delivered over the cloud manage price quotations for incoming and outgoing stocks. The software consolidates all incoming customer requests and orders, analyzes them through a series of algorithms and develops a demand forecast. Analytics results from the demand forecast are used to optimize the production schedules and manage the fleet to create a leaner supply chain system.

3. Collaboration, Mobility and Productivity Management

There are production entities that are geographically dispersed with large workforces. The teams continually share information to enhance the flexibility of production operations. Cloud technologies integrate crucial data and information and provide centralized storage points accessible through the multiple platforms approved by the organization.

Cloud platforms ensure that plant operators keep up-to-date and accurate logs on equipment operating conditions. Maintenance technicians have real-time access to operator logs and data collected by condition-monitoring sensors through computerized maintenance management systems and mobile maintenance software platforms. Maintenance teams assess operational variances and advise production teams on possible mitigation measures before corrective maintenance is undertaken.

While companies strive to uphold the quality of their products, instances of isolated defects are likely to occur. It is common practice for organizations to invest in quality and quantity control equipment, a bulk of which use cloud-based comparative analysis software. These facilities reject defective products and generate alerts for re-calibration or change of production tools. Plant floor employees can utilize cloud-based worksheets to feed in their working hours, maintenance summaries, and work-related safety incidents.

Timely communications are vital for re-adjusting business operations to match market demands. Through cloud technology, plant floor employees, senior management and logistics partners brainstorm on transformative business approaches.

4. Automation and Remote Access

Human-operated facilities are prone to errors due to fatigue and repetitive tasks. Automation and intelligent systems have been put in place to complement human effort and eliminate quality issues in production. Several plant floors feature logic controllers, pneumatic and hydraulic systems, robots and cobots that rely on computing power to operate. These automation systems require robust computing power and infrastructure. Cloud systems provide these capabilities and improve the compatibility of automation systems through easy-to-navigate dashboards.

Equipment breakdowns and emergency stops result in huge financial, material and equipment damage. Production entities are embracing predictive maintenance (PdM) programs that remotely monitor the working conditions of equipment to generate production-friendly maintenance schedules. These programs require robust computing architecture possible through connectivity to cloud systems and facilitate timely,  cost-effective maintenance efforts.

Lastly, through cloud technology, companies can gain access to invaluable remote consultations from production or maintenance experts. This implies that one expert in a certain field can provide technical assistance to ground personnel located in diverse production facilities. Centralized information systems provide unbiased access to production and maintenance metrics by authorized staff and stakeholders from any part of the world, thus improving the transparency of plant floor operations.

Final Remarks

Cloud technology solutions are perfect tools for multi-team collaboration and enhance the productivity of manufacturing facilities of any size. They are scalable and remotely accessible platforms that will spur the prospects of Industry 4.0 and the implementation of smart manufacturing technologies. They are cost-effective solutions with capabilities to solve a myriad of manufacturing challenges.