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Short Introduction to the Cloud Manufacturing

Today I would like to introduce a topic that is becoming already priority in the business of manufacturing 4.0….and will became more and more necessary as its development is on the same trend as the cloud computing transformation. But let’s begin with some premises: industrial manufacturing operations are notorious for being slow and cautious adopters of new technology. This is rightfully so, as many of the industrial processes in this world are critical to the support of our society and in some cases, hazardous to the public if they’re not well contained and managed. No wonder, then, that the new cloud paradigm of computing is often approached with great caution by industrial operations.

But what exactly means “Cloud manufacturing”? Well I would define it as a new approach to manufacturing that combines easy-to-use, online, self-service software for uploading design specifications and managing projects with state-of-the art prototyping and manufacturing services. Cloud-based manufacturing eliminates the delays, errors and frustrations common in the traditional email-and-wait experience.

The old approach to electronics manufacturing is overly complex, time consuming, and intimidating for small businesses and makers. That’s because even low volume orders are funnelled through the same process as the one used for high-volume mature products and many large electronics manufacturers won’t even take any order unless it’s in the 1000s or 10,000s. Cloud manufacturing, on the other hand, is designed specifically to make it easy, inexpensive (or close to be inexpensive), and quick to produce prototypes and small batches, allowing designers to iterate, improve and deliver on time.

Please consider some of the advantages of cloud-based computing, which include three factors in particular as far as big data is concerned: velocity, volume and variety. Think about all of the information produced by an industrial manufacturing plant today, and all of the data being gleaned from sensors, switches, valves, spreadsheets and even people. Then think about how quickly this all happens. In many cases these measurements are taken at sub-second intervals. And think about the different types of available data, whether analogic or digital, text or video, or location coordinates or transactions. Indeed, industrial operations have just about every type of data used today in computing at their digital fingertips.

Given the competitive nature of manufacturing, if a company is not continually striving to become more productive and sustainable, they’re effectively falling behind — which means eventually they’re likely to go out of business. Case in point: the landscape about 10 years ago, during the advent of mobile technologies and wireless communications in industrial plants. Many manufacturing companies were fearful of adopting new technology then, fearful of everything from the intrinsic safety of devices to the security of people using them.

Fast-forward to today and their plants couldn’t operate at current productivity levels without mobile solutions on the shop floor and in the supply chain. The same is true of industrial cloud computing, though certain questions loom over adoption: Where is the best place to store all that industrial information and boost supply chain execution and then provide what people need? There are also all the particulars around tracking efficiency and work in process, plus scaling production across a plant. The solution needs to be easily adopted by others — and it’s not just about individual plants anymore. The entire supply chain needs coordination, creating a so-called digital thread across people, machines and processes. An infinitely scalable, easily shared, reliable, secure and globally available cloud is the answer.

One of the question we should be asking isn’t whether the industrial cloud is for manufacturing companies but rather what applications should we seed into the industrial cloud to gain a competitive edge.

There are some important features & benefits of cloud manufacturing that I would like shortly present, but please remind: not all cloud manufacturers are the same, so it is important to find a partner that has all of the futures that are important to your business.

1)    Instant Quotes: With cloud manufacturing, you don’t have sit around waiting hours or days for a quote via email. Instead, you can find a manufacturing service partner that offers real time quotes online. It is as easy as uploading your design documents and specifying the parts you’d like.

2)    Hands-Off Sourcing: modern manufacturing services take it upon themselves to identify the best sources for parts and negotiate significant discounts with the buying power of their entire customer base as leverage. This turnkey service saves you time and hassle, and also helps keep your costs down.

3)    Online Tracking and Project Management: with cloud manufacturing, you get complete visibility into the status of your project. You are able to make changes and review results at any time. As you evaluate vendors, keep in mind that reporting should be powerful, simple to use, and available on any device.

4)    Inventory Storage and Management: speaking of keeping it simple, some cloud manufacturing companies also offer inventory storage and management services. Once your product is built, your partner houses it for you until it is ready to be shipped. You don’t have to worry about warehousing space and you can keep track of your inventory from afar.

5)    Lower Costs: one of the most important benefits of cloud-based manufacturing is lower cost. This matter if you are working on a single project or trying to rapidly build an electronic device business. Of course, costs go down with high volume, but small orders and prototypes can now be done for reasonable prices.

6)    Accelerate your “Go-alive-Timeline”: by streamlining the entire process with easy-to-use online tools, instant quoting, and rapid prototyping, you can get your products into the hands of customers faster. By simply uploading your design documents and Bill of Materials you can get your quote in seconds. Sourcing is off your plate because your cloud manufacturing partner takes care of that, even passing along steep discounts from parts suppliers.

To conclude: Cloud manufacturing is a subject of research in several countries, including China in particular: until 2013, about 80% of all papers and study on this topic were written by Chinese researchers. In view of the strategic potential offered by Cloud manufacturing especially in high labor cost countries, the European Union has begun to fund research projects and pilot applications: Italy and Poland both highly crafted Countries with a strong industrial structure of clusters and districts, are both in the position to take advantage of the benefits offered this new approach. 

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