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The edge reaches new frontiers in digital manufacturing

By Carl Morris, Sector CTO, Digital Industries, BT

Industry 4.0 ushered in the era of digital manufacturing, bringing Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) together and focusing particular attention on the network edge as a key point of transformation.

If we define digital manufacturing as the bringing together of people, machines and things, then the edge is the important arena where so much of that interaction takes place. As a starting point, the edge is where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) enters the picture, opening the door to the integration of AI and robotics. It’s also where infrastructure enablers like the cloud, edge computing and a whole new world of big data and analytics cross over into the factory environment. Plus, it’s where new technologies like 5G and software-defined access come into play.

Reach further, achieve more

The edge environment continues to evolve and, I believe, it will forever push outwards to extend its reach. Right now, I’d update the definition of digital manufacturing to include an increased sense of collaboration, requiring manufacturing services, supply chains, products and processes to be digitally connected.

Leading on from this, we should be thinking beyond just the Industry 4.0 benefits available within the connected factory. It’s time to think further, exploring what digital manufacturers could achieve if they could connect their entire supply chain and partner ecosystems.

Here are three tangible possibilities of what this extended edge could look like:

1. Using software-defined networks as connectors

Software-defined networking (SDN) technology is already demonstrating how it can control and secure an organisation’s network more easily and has huge potential for joining supply chains and partner ecosystems. A sticking point could be the number of SDN vendors involved, assuming that each entity in the ecosystem has its own preferred vendor. The ecosystem choosing one single vendor and then embedding its SDN products deep into all members’ networks as they’re built in a standardised, repeatable way is highly unlikely. Creating robust integration techniques that make federated networks between supply chain partners possible will be the way forward, and an area to watch.

2. Building multi-cloud hubs at the edge

The health and life science sector is a prime example of an ecosystem forging ahead through federation. The aim of supply chain management in the sector is to ensure end-to-end visibility of information among suppliers, manufacturers, distributors and customers. Delivering products in a timely way involves the flow of many different product types and the participation of multiple stakeholders. Today, the health and life science sector is dealing with complex multi-sector supply chains that have cloud-based management solutions. This is where edge technology can help, by securely federating disparate networks and offering a multi-cloud hub to enable insight sharing and coordination between stakeholders as a matter of routine.

3. Networking an entire industry

The future shape of the energy industry is very topical at the moment, and there are a lot of questions about how it can better deliver a secure supply to consumers while holding down costs. Industry-wide innovation will be essential and, again, the edge is growing. Part of reshaping the industry will involve building an Energy Cloud to network multiple providers together in a secure and standardised way. We’re proud to say we’re working on this initiative, as well as jointly investing in sustainable developments to help energy companies embrace renewables and commit to net zero-emission targets.

Use our blueprint to develop your edge

We’re already working with a wide range of global organisations to build operational technology services that use the right digital technologies in the correct places to securely connect their people, machines and IoT sensors. This makes it possible for them to drive improvements in their product quality and to increase product volumes by reducing technology downtime to an absolute minimum. But, beyond that, we’re exploring with customers how they can realise even more benefits with supply chain 4.0, by connecting their entire supply chain and partner ecosystems.

We’ve created a number of blueprints for edge services and digital manufacturing that help unlock the industry 4.0 benefits in your organisation. It provides a framework that helps guide you through the whole process, highlights what to look out for, and shares practical advice on making your ambitions a reality.

Download your blueprint today

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