What impact is the cloud having on asset management and condition-based maintenance?

Cloud-based technologies are connecting plants, people, and machine data in new ways – but is the cloud right for you?

By Thomas Wilk, Editor in Chief

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Mobility and collaboration

The final factor driving this cloud resurgence is the ubiquity of mobile devices, both in and out of the workplace. The ability of mobile devices to securely access business and machine data stored in the cloud is driving new forms of business agility and knowledge capture at the organization level, and has the potential to drive greater loyalty and productivity at the employee level.

"Mobile is all about collecting data, and driving data in real-time so you have accurate information," says Rick Veague, CTO at IFS North America. "In asset management and in field service and maintenance this has become a requirement, because the idea that you're going to somehow after the fact write down or catch up with what you did just isn't realistic in today's very fast-paced world. Instead, you want to be able to react very quickly to changing events, changing environments, and continually optimize your bottom-line results - that constant re-optimization is the agility that most of our customers are looking for, and mobility is really an enabling technology to get there."

While agreeing that cloud-based services are enabling a better level of connectivity with mobile devices, Emerson's Boudreaux adds, "That also fits closely with the Generation Y expectation of having connectivity to their data with easy access to it; and having a collaborative environment, so they can share information with their colleagues, collaborate with people, hold group discussions, that sort of thing."

"Retaining employees is important, and mobile devices are the stock in trade for how those workers collaborate -- it's how they live their lives, and by extension it's how they do their jobs," says Veague. "Without that kind of platform, I think you're closing out a big part of the workforce. With that mobile device and the right kind of systems in the back-end, you start to have the ability to collect some of that data from the older workforce, such as work instructions, notes, blogs, wikis, and other forms of collaboration."

"I think the Millennial workforce has a couple of characteristics that are going to change the way people approach traditional CM/EAM technology delivery," says JMA Wireless' Landry. "One, they have a much more open mind to accepting things like cloud-based technologies. Two, everything about their thinking is un-tethered – they can’t think of why you would want wires...they don't even want wires from their mobile device to their ear buds. So, if you think about it, they don't think of the workplace as something fixed in geography, fixed in time, or tethered – it should be a very adaptable and always-on world."

Veague says IFS has developed a specific security strategy to provide mobile data security assurance. "First, we try to minimize the amount of data that's actually resident on the user's mobile device. The other thing we do is that we use the cloud as an intermediary device. I think it's an uphill battle for corporate IT to tell users what devices they're going to use, so what we do at IFS is to have the apps that we provide on mobile communicate through an intermediate cloud-routing service, rather than having to open up the corporate network to allow these devices directly on the network to carry out and synchronize information."

Ultimately this results in a secure connection to the cloud, and from the cloud a secure encrypted connection back into the IT platform (whether that's also in the cloud or on-premise), which effectively provides what amounts to an air gap between the device itself and the user's choice of back-end solution. "If the device does pick up viruses or malware of some kind, those aren't transmitted through your firewall and onto your corporate premise," says Veague.

Overall, says JMA's Landry, as the manufacturing industry moves toward a mobile, untethered state, "It's more than untethered people – it's untethered equipment, it's untethered analysis points, and already we're seeing a huge influx and talk in this industry about machine-to-machine and  Internet of Things (IoT).  Data collection and more touch points across the facility are being put in place with the desire to eliminate pre-wiring, so that the factory is more agile. We will see mobile (cellular) chip sets embedded in things like pallets so that they can collect pallet payload data, location information, weight, etc. and provide this to the supply chain system in real-time. This means that plants will have to leverage more of these untethered mobile-connected technologies, and as they do, what it will mean for them is greater efficiencies and greater adaptability in the factory design and delivering agility into the next-generation factory."

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