10 November 2019

Beyond the Hype: A Practical Use Case on the Edge

A technology without applications is like a hammer without nails and no walls to mount your shelves to and organize your scattered belongings. So, – beyond all the buzz and hype – what are the actual Industrial Edge Computing use cases and where are the greatest potentials?

When people ask me what I like most about edge computing, I really like to refer back to my times as Production Engineer at the Siemens Electronics Works in Amberg, Germany. Together with a great team, I worked on predictive maintenance solutions for our manufacturing sites. We had developed an analysis system for the life-time prognosis of metal transport chains in reflow ovens. These ovens were part of an assembly line for printed circuit boards (PCBs). 

A first use case at Siemens Electronics Works Amberg

The shopfloor in Amberg is comparable to one and a half the size of the soccer field at the Allianz Arena in Munich. At the beginning of the project, we had up to 18 reflow ovens distributed over the whole area. I can#t help smiling when I remember that day, I had to install an update for the data analysis program on each oven. After the 13th oven my pedometer complimented me on achieveing my daily goal of 10.000 steps. Nowadays, with an edge solution this kind of nuisance, that kept me and the team occupied for many more hours, belongs to the past.

Amberg became an early adopter of the emerging edge technology. Besides the device management aspect, it allows for high-frequency local data collection and time-critical data processing.

A few month ago, I moved from the factory into the marketing team for Siemens Industrial Edge, but the thing I devote most of my professional life to has stayed the same: Dealing with great solutions that make people happy to work with. 

Global equipment management as greatest potential of Industrial Edge

Looking at all the challenges edge solutions address, I see the greatest future potential in overall equipment management. In a factory the number of devices we need to connect and communicate with will constantly increase. Before edge computing there was no satisfying ready-to-use solution for managing all these devices with marginal effort. 

Machine builders are now capable of keeping track on all of their machines and systems, spread all over the world from a central point to ensure timely updates of functions and new firmware. So far, full network connectivity of various machines requires several access points. With integrated edge functionality it only needs a single device, that would have been needed in any case, like a PLC (Programmable logic controller), an HMI panel or a CNC controll unit.

New software applications – not new infrastructure

In the past, production lines were built with its general infrastructure in place for the next 5-10 years and very minimal changes of the produced products. With the increasing demand for flexibility and customization today, the focus has shifted from adapting infrastructure to implementing new software and applications. There is an operating system in place, that allows for facilities to be upgraded without laying hands on the control system hardware, simply by adding new functionalities through so-called edge apps.

The Industrial Edge use case: Schmalz vacuum grippers

Schmalz vacuum grippers picks up cardboard sheets

There has been a recent use case for an Industrial Edge application in a fully automated assembly line. The final module is the packaging machine. The machinery includes lots of built-in components from various suppliers, for example Siemens PLCs and vacuum grippers by the German company Schmalz, the market leader in vacuum automation and ergonomic handling systems. A robot folds a perforated piece of cardboard for the packaging of several 100 produced units per day. Dust from the cardboard cutting poses a great challenge to production process, as it can cause the vacuum grippers to clog. This leads the cardboard pieces to fall off the vacuum gripper during the handling process and thus blocking the whole process.

Schmalz has commissioned an own app for Siemens Industrial Edge, which collects raw data from the vacuum grippers and calculates KPIs allowing for conclusions regarding pending service and maintenance procedures. The equipment surveillance points out when a filter needs to be cleaned or a hose fitting needs to be checked. The big thing about Siemens Industrial Edge is, that not just only Schmalz, but also other component suppliers can use the open platform with its infrastructure to implement their own applications. And by the way: All applications run on one and the same Edge Device! 

New production functionalities by a simple app download

For the machine user edge devices open up the possibility to add new functionalities by a simple app download rather than having to contact the supplier and investing in having the necessary new features implemented and tested for compatibility with the existing systems.

There are two possible ways of implementing edge technology into a production site:

  • Via dedicated edge devices, that is basically a stand-alone device that connects to existing brownfield sites to run applications
  • Via Edge enabled devices, for example PLCs, HMI panels, IPCs, Network devices or CNC controls, that have one core for their actual function and one for the edge run-time (the first enabled edge device, the uniform comfort panel, will be showcased at the Hannover Messe)

Key benefits of Siemens Industrial Edge

A good example for an industry, which can greatly benefit from edge technology, is automotive. Its extensive assembly lines with many control clusters can be monitored and managed much more easily with an edge system. Possible benefits across all industries are:

  • Functional enhancements of shop floor devices 
  • Increased flexibility and openness for automation
  • Local preprocessing of high-frequency data
  • Apply Machine Learning and AI
  • Fast innovation cycles for machines and systems
  • Central device management

Edge vs. Cloud? 

Edge solutions do not rival cloud-based offerings – they supplement each other! High-frequency data can be managed and pre-processed in local edge devices while the consolidated data can be shared with the cloud for global access or power-intensive machine learning tasks.

Some smaller businesses still shy away from getting their entire shop floor equipment hooked up to the cloud. There are various concerns like risk of investment, data privacy and network traffic. The sheer amount of data in industrial settings explains the push for industrial 5G technology for handling greater data loads with less latency. Edge solutions close a gap that cloud platforms do not cover, either now or in future.

While the development of edge applications needs advanced coders, edge devices can be used by automation engineers without having knowledge in high-level programming languages. In our vacuum gripper use case, the app developers from Schmalz coded the edge app, and the machine builder just needed to copy the app into the edge device to use all the functionalities without any further development costs.

The future impact of Industrial Edge applications 

When I look at the future of Industrial Edge applications, I see a great potential, as they address the most pressing challenges brought about by the ever increasing trend for customization and flexibility in production. The amount of devices, sensors, cameras, control elements, etc., will keep increasing, followed by the need for global data management. Cloud solutions and industrial 5G cannot tackle this data flood alone. Edge enabled devices are quintessential for future manufacturers to meet the market demands, keep their heads afloat and maintain a well informed overview of their shop floor equipment and automation processes.

For the predictive maintenance use cases in our Electronics Works Amberg I’d like to see a holistic cockpit solution, which shows immediate need for action of all machines ranging from the simple milling spindle to complex assembly lines.

A second step may then involve the development of new pay-per use business models for the whole industry. This will necessitate widespread implementation of integrated and connected edge-cloud solutions. Markus Weinlaender shows in his latest blogpost how to develop such digital busines models. But first we need to secure the groundwork. The success of What’s App for example was only possible, because millions of people were using to the most popular platform in private life: smartphones. Likewise, we need to make a persistent concerted effort to lay the groundwork for continuous connectivity on the shopfloor before the next billion dollars can be made with data.

Please feel free to ask questions you might have about industrial edge applications. I am eager to read your comments!

Or meet me at the SPS fair in Nuremberg from November 26th  to 28th 

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