Connectivity Fit for Manufacturing

Todd Kiehn, VP Product Management, GTT, discusses how manufacturers can adapt enterprise networks for industry 4.0

Technology is a fast-moving area and it can be difficult to ensure your business is implementing the right network services to ensure the best outcomes for your business and your customers. In manufacturing, this challenge is even more acute. 

Manufacturers are well aware of the high demands placed on the network that powers their day-to-day operations. There are connectivity demands from hundreds of employees, customers, suppliers and partners from many typically disparate locations. At the same time, manufacturers are under constant pressure to improve supply chain efficiencies and manufacturing techniques. New technologies, such as AI and the Internet of Things (IoT), have promised to optimise production techniques, inventory management and online ordering methods. The challenge for manufacturers is how to keep up and adapt their infrastructure to cope with these trends. 

Old world versus new world

The rise of smart manufacturing and Industry 4.0 brings changes within the supply chain. In the past, a manufacturer would have sold a product and that would have been the end of the purchasing journey. If it broke, then a product would have been either replaced or repaired.

However, the way manufacturing products are purchased and consumed is changing. Technological advancements, such as sensors and ubiquitous internet access, combined with the flexibility gained through the growth of cloud, has increased the possibilities for product lifecycle management. Instead of just selling and shipping a product, manufacturers can increasingly offer products with new services attached such as fault-monitoring and proactive maintenance and repair. In some instances, digital services are now part and parcel of the core products that manufacturers offer. These evolving business models often require a rethink of the network design to ensure connectivity is established for the entire product and service lifecycle.

Connecting many sides

To adopt and reap the rewards of Industry 4.0, manufacturers need to make sure the underlying network architecture can support their new business models and production methods. Manufacturers often build their IT infrastructure in-house, typically connected by a private MPLS network to a supporting data centre in a closed loop. Only a small set of applications would be run on this type of network design, although they might also be transmitting large design files or data volumes to facilitate production.

Now, as manufacturers bring IT functions to the forefront, they are striving to build a more intelligent networked ecosystem, from connecting their own sites for manufacturing processes to sharing information with partner sites, or even delivering real-time software product updates to equipment within a customer’s environment. Manufacturing is becoming more reliant on leading edge networking technology. This entails areas to which manufacturers need to securely connect, areas which they must monitor, and areas of which they must seize or cede control.

The rise of intelligent networks

In order to gain a competitive advantage, manufacturers are looking for opportunities to boost and enhance their customers’ experience, leading them to review their infrastructure. Customers expect around the clock system support and manufacturers need to be able to ensure their products are working optimally by providing services all the way onto a customer’s premise.

New technologies are also making factories and plants more efficient and responsive, and helping manufacturers to innovate internally. Opportunities for increasing levels of sophistication and accompanying revenue streams are being pursued in multiple areas. Again, this increases network usage, placing pressure on manufacturing networks to improve performance and efficiency.

Each scenario that arises could potentially benefit from a different connectivity model, so manufacturers need to understand how to create a flexible connected environment. The emergence of SD-WAN, which combines the power of the internet with the greater use of software-based decision-making in wide area networking, helps address this challenge.

SD-WAN’s growing popularity is in part down to its ability to offer businesses a new level of agility in getting traffic to different locations and public internet applications. It provides manufacturers with a broad array of access options including private, internet and wireless connectivity, that can all be used according to the needs of the business. SD-WAN can allow manufacturers to use various connectivity methods for optimising application performance, flexibility, and reach. If necessary to support existing application estates across large geographies, WAN optimisation techniques may also be employed to augment application performance.

When manufacturers are spread across multiple sites, SD-WAN helps identify and prioritise data traffic for specific services, so applications and products run smoothly. It enables the network to tell the application how best to send its traffic rather than the other way around. By intelligently leveraging multiple access paths, it ensures high quality services and maximises bandwidth resources at headquarters, branch or cloud locations. If a site has both an active as well as a passive backup connection, it can also enable the use of both lines simultaneously. This change alone can mean much improved performance at a controlled cost. It helps save on technical resources as well, as central rules and policies can be automatically distributed and implemented in seconds, making the management of site connectivity simpler, consistent and more responsive.

Maintaining a competitive edge

Manufacturers are finding new opportunities, through new business models and are looking to intelligent networks to help them gain a competitive edge and keep pace with evolution of their products and services.

By sourcing and collaborating with a trusted partner on SD-WAN, manufacturers can ensure they are getting the application-aware, low-latency connectivity they need to support the delivery of new services. Customer, partner, supplier and internal needs can be met without hesitation, resulting in greater agility to respond to overall changes in the market.

About the Author

Todd Kiehn, VP Product Management, GTT. I’m a product and marketing executive with a passion for figuring out what the next big thing will be, bringing it to market, and then making sure it’s successful. I’ve spent most of my career in telecommunications (Covad, Level 3, GTT) and electric power systems (Active Power) but am actively looking for new challenges in new industries.

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