How is the data centre responding to IIoT demands?


    The rapidly developing edge data centre industry has an important role to play in the manufacturing sector, as production lines become increasingly reliant on IT. Louise Frampton reports on a recent DCD Debate in which leading experts highlighted the challenges

    Resilience is becoming increasingly important for the manufacturing sector, as digitisation has become a business priority for many organisations. 

    “Manufacturing has changed dramatically. Today, production lines cannot run without IT; and, without electricity, the IT will not run. We have to keep things working,” commented Mark Howell, global IT facilities planning and engineering, at Ford Motor Company.

    “Older factories need to adapt – infrastructure varies from being very advanced to being fairly old and this includes the electrical distribution and IT infrastructure. Making this resilient and keeping the production lines running is something that many companies are grappling with.”

    Arup UK advanced manufacturing leader Mark Bartlett pointed out that a huge amount of IT is being introduced to support advanced manufacturing models, not only in the UK but also overseas. “There is a trend for Industry 4.0 and Industry 5.0 in new facilities and we are seeing this being linked with IoT,” he said.

    Bucking the Cloud trend

    While there is widespread migration to the Cloud in general, the manufacturing sector is bucking this trend, according to the panel. 

    “Outsourcing applications to the Cloud isn’t really conducive to the manufacturing process,” explained Victor Avelar, director and senior research analyst, Data Centre Science Centre, Schneider Electric. “We are seeing more on prem IT kit. In particular, servers are being placed in micro data centres – small racks filled with specific IT solutions that control a particular portion of the manufacturing process…” 

    Avelar added that there is an even greater need for cooling and powering of this equipment. 

    “The more it becomes tied into the operations technology – the robots, the machine, the conveyor belt technology – the more critical the IT becomes,” he said. “Every machine is computer controlled… and these machines are connected to other machines. They need to be sequenced and running exactly at the right time. All that computing cannot be up in the cloud. We are having to put computing onsite and make it more robust.”

    To make the best use of the data and analytics to increase productivity and manage costs, many applications need to be run at the edge, very close to the load and this is being driven by bandwidth and latency considerations. Not only is manufacturing becoming ‘just in time’, but IT infrastructure is also being constructed in a similar manner. Bartlett commented that Arup is witnessing increasing use of small, modular data centres and they need to be made available much earlier when designing facilities, for testing and trials. The panel explained that these micro data centres are being designed for harsh industrial environments, while UPS and backup generators are also being tailored to the manufacturing process. 

    Critical thinking

    “There is a huge criticality in this space,” continued Avelar. 

    “As IT is becoming critical to the manufacturing process, you need to take steps to ensure reliability is maintained. Where medium voltage machines are being used, active filters may be required; you will need to ensure there are no voltage spikes. You also need the IT equipment to be backed up – we are seeing the increasing use of lithium-ion batteries and single-phase UPS. Compared to valve-regulated lead-acid batteries, they have a much longer lifetime and are better suited to harsh environments. In terms of technology, liquid cooled servers are also starting to make a resurgence. This could be a potential option in the future, in these harsh environments,” he commented. 

    Bartlett added that Arup is also seeing more energy monitoring at a machine level but facilities also want to have the ability to look at the quality of the power supply and investigate interruptions and spikes. “Manufacturers want a lot more data and analytics,” he observed. 

    Manufacturers such as Schneider Electric are driving down losses in terms of their UPSs but with efficiency already at 97%, and 99% in conversion mode, there is a limit to how much further this can go, according to Avelar. 

    “In the future, we are going to see more interaction with the grid. It will be interesting to see where manufacturing heads with this; there is potential to use energy storage – manufacturers could participate in peak shaving and be financially rewarded by the utility,” he concluded.

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