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Is Paperless Manufacturing Moving to the Cloud?

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The cloud is changing the way software and IT service is delivered, but is it ready for manufacturing?

By Nick Stonebraker, CIMx Software Developer

Ever have someone put in an IT Service ticket and ask you to “get” their Yahoo email account to work?  “I click on the email,” they might ask. “And it doesn’t do anything.  Can’t you open it?”  Of course, after checking their web browser, there’s not much you can do (unless you work for Yahoo).  Many don’t understand that subtle fact, because the cloud is still a mystery for so many users.
Try to explain where an application or file is in the cloud, and many get this slightly lost look and begin peering everywhere, hoping for a glimpse of the “cloud.”  It’s a mystery, but it’s a cool mystery that saves money and provides a host of user benefit.  Most users may not fully understand the cloud, but they know it works and appreciate the benefits – which is why you should be prepared to answer the (inevitable) question, “Why isn’t the shop floor on the cloud?”
Cloud computing, computing services hosted over the Internet, offers a number of advantages for the shop floor.  For example, we all know cloud service is often fully managed by the provider, eliminating many upkeep costs and lowering overall expense.  Patches, updates and product maintenance can be done remotely, requiring little time and resource investment but still ensuring users have the latest releases.  With the cloud, users pay for only the services they use.  The service can be quickly scaled when need arises, eliminating many of the emergency crisis that overworked IT departments (understandably) struggle to handle.  But, there are hazards hiding in the promise of cloud computing. 

Data Loss

A recent survey by Symantec found that 43% of the respondents using Cloud services admitted to data loss.  Admittedly, some of the data loss could be attributed to user error, including misplaced or misfiled information.  For a shop floor, secure information and data management is necessary, especially in heavily regulated industries facing potential audits.  Effective paperless manufacturing relies on secure data management, revision control, and secure production records. 

Data Security

Because so many users are accessing the cloud, a number that significantly increases with public cloud services, data security is a challenge.  More users increase the risk. Unauthorized users can (accidentally or otherwise) access data they shouldn’t.  Adding a cloud-based ERP system to shop floor systems magnifies the risk, because you have even more users potentially accessing the manufacturing system.  Potentially, secure data could be inadvertently moved to a less secure area of the cloud, especially on shared servers. The truth is, with any new technology it takes time to develop standards, and the operational standards for cloud computing are still a work in progress. 


With cloud services, you are entrusting data to another company, opening yourself to risk.  Theft from your service provider is one potential risk.  Inadvertent mistakes by employees of the service provider, such as unsecured apps on a work device connected to your data, is another potential risk.  Consider the “neighborhood,” or server, where your data is stored.  In a recent example, an FBI raid on a server used by cybercriminals led to several businesses losing data.  They unknowingly shared a server with criminals, and during the investigation their data was lost.  Finally, there is the question of who, ultimately, owns the data – you or the company providing the server?  Assumptions over ownership and responsibility may not be clear at first, and can lead to significant problems in the future. 

Service Failure

Growing cloud use leads to another problem – failure of service availability.  Recently, Gartner predicted that as more businesses move to the cloud, there will be an increased risk of “cascade” service failures.  Businesses are connected on shared servers, and problems can quickly spread, leading to widespread service outages that would have been contained if computer services were localized.  As more and more companies rely heavily on the cloud, this risk will grow, and since significant downtime is not an option for most shop floors, failure of service is a risk to operations you can’t control. 

Mobile Manufacturing

A recent report from the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) cited a survey of more than 200 enterprise executives concerned with mobile device security and data in the cloud.  More and more industries are using mobile devices in business, including manufacturing.  Mobile manufacturing holds tremendous advantages for the shop floor.  But, as businesses adopt cloud services; unsecured mobile devices create unintentional “back doors” into secure data.  Potentially, any mobile device could access your cloud, including devices you can’t control. 

Cloud computing hold tremendous promise for the future, and will continue to grow as businesses adopt the new technology.  It is a powerful tool.  Data protection and recovery is a strength of cloud computing, significantly decreasing the cost and time for disaster recovery, especially in automating backup and speeding up the restoration process.  Almost all data in the cloud is encrypted, which will significantly improve security.  There are cost savings in the cloud, and the ability to scale resources to meet current needs can significantly improve a businesses ability to overcome challenges
But there are currently hazards to moving your shop floor data management to the cloud.  Service providers and enterprise IT resources have not been able to provide the appropriate level of security, both in the cloud and among users.  The cloud is an emerging technology, still struggling with growing pains, which may impact the ability of a provider to deliver the level of service, speed and accuracy necessary for the modern, dynamic and constantly changing shop floor.
But, cloud computing is a promising technology.  As service providers find better solutions and tools for enterprise cloud services, it will become a viable option for the shop floor.
Have you ever considered preparing for the cloud with an internal cloud-based system to manage production data?  A web-based paperless manufacturing solution hosted on an internal server is a cloud-based process control solution that, when there is an appropriate level of security and reliability, can be uploaded and served on the cloud.  This is a step toward the future without experiencing any of the current risks in cloud computing.
What experience have you had with moving your MES, paperless manufacturing or ERP services to the cloud?  Are there benefits to adopting a “cloud” strategy for your shop floor we haven’t covered here?  Speed and the ability to quickly make global changes to a system is a significant benefit we haven’t touched on.  Are there challenges or hazards we missed?  Let us know what your experience has been with the cloud.