Growing manufacturers are investing in technology to turn factories into smart operations, applying modern data center concepts to the factory floor to reduce unplanned downtime, lower costs, and enhance safety, sustainability, and output.

The push to modernize is strong. In a recent survey conducted by MeriTalk and in partnership with Dell Technologies, 92 percent of more than 150 data center decision-makers from growing manufacturing organizations said digital transformation is a top priority.

At a recent webinar, an expert in edge computing at Dell Technologies attributed the desire for change to a combination of ongoing business priorities and more recent imperatives such as the desire for sustainability and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s always a drive to reduce costs. There’s always a drive to improve the product quality … [and] you have to improve your yields, reduce waste, be more energy efficient, be able to address your emissions,” Mike Hayes, an engineering technologist for edge solutions, said at the online session, “Manufacturing Innovation at the Enterprise Edge.”

The pandemic, Hayes added, has created an even “higher priority focus on adoption of the latest generation of technology to help transform manufacturing.”

Smart factories require more applications and more data than ever before to deliver the insights that leaders need and the modern products that customers want.

As they introduce technologies such as machine learning, automation, and advanced analytics to turn data collected by Internet of Things devices into actionable insights, manufacturing executives are facing a host of challenges around scalability, real-time performance, and other issues. Chief among them, said Varun Taware, an edge and cloud computing expert at Dell Technologies, is the ongoing “data deluge.”

“You have seen a massive amount of data being created by data sources, most of which have not existed before, from sensors, robotics, video sources,” he said at the webinar.

Managing this data and processing it in real time presents several challenges, which begin with the ability to connect with diverse data sources, Taware observed. “Some of them are legacy systems that [haven’t been] refreshed in the manufacturing facilities for 25 years,” he said. “And now you have this plethora of new edge devices” that use more advanced protocols for data communication.

“You need to manage these different formats, protocols, as a volume to be able to merge those data streams, augment them, and clean them up. And then comes the more important part, which is to build the real-time actionable insights using the modern technologies – AI and machine learning. Once you’ve bought this up and running in one factory, you now need to be able to scale this effort.”

Doing this successfully leads to “truly remarkable outcomes that you can deliver with a smart factory,” including reduced downtime and increased asset utilization, said Todd Edmunds, global chief technology officer for smart manufacturing, edge compute, and digital twin at Dell Technologies.

To achieve these outcomes and drive digital transformations, manufacturers are taking steps that include developing a modernization roadmap, conducting a formal cost benefit analysis, and employing organization-wide communications to prepare the workforce. In the end, the speakers agreed, a holistic approach is required, one that spans the operational technology and information technology domains to create an enterprise edge.

Hayes said that broad perspective should combine high-level assessments of existing operations with strong executive leadership driving change. “The part manufacturers need to work on,” he said, “is truly understanding where the value is, where they are from a technology perspective, what outcomes or what projects might deliver more value, and what kind of return on investment they can expect.”

For more insight, view the webinar on demand.