Here’s a look at how cloud computing is transforming metalworking. Article by John Young, EU Automation.
Metalworking has played a pivotal role in the evolution of mankind, so much so that there are entire periods of history named after metals. While the Iron and Bronze Ages are behind us, society is framed by a whole other frontier of technology — The Information Age. But can the legacy of metalworking and the evolution of digitalisation work in unison?
Despite its deep-rooted history, metal fabrication remains an essential process in modern manufacturing. Rising urbanisation and industrialisation, burgeoning automotive and aerospace industries and new advancements in metal forming are just some of the many reasons why metalworking faces increased demand and expanding production.
As the Internet of Things (IoT) hits the shop floor, insight into its vast network of communicating machinery is accompanied by an ever-increasing access to the internet. The more machines ‘talk’, the more information they produce and as we enter the dawn of a data-driven era, managing this information is integral to its value.
Up in the Air
Also called ‘The Cloud’, cloud computing refers to software applications that run on remote servers instead of a user’s onsite IT infrastructure. The on-demand computing resource is gaining significant traction across industries that are looking to easily manage and access their data from anywhere in the world.
Regions all over the world are beginning to adopt the technology—and the Asia-Pacific region is no exception to the trend. In fact, the APAC region has been keen to reap the benefits of cloud computing across many of its industries.
Established in 2010, the Asia Cloud Computing Association (ACCA) represents the stakeholders of Asia’s cloud computing ecosystem and works to accelerate the growth of the technology across the region. According to ACCA’s 2018 Cloud Readiness Index (CRI), Singapore is APAC’s most cloud-ready region and, alongside Hong Kong, is a global leader in cloud readiness. Far ahead of larger economies such as the United Kingdom, Germany and the United States, Singapore represents the APAC region’s swift adoption of the technology.
Blue Skies Beyond
Effective implementation of cloud computing goes beyond connecting your shop floor devices to the sky—it means connecting your shop floor to the rest of the business. With one accurate record on hand, employees, suppliers and partners can all refer to a single source of reliable information to increase consistency.
The innate scalability of cloud computing means that manufacturers can easily accommodate changes and growth to their projects. Resources can be leveraged on a pay-as-you-go or on-demand basis, which gives access to additional assets when required and without the need to invest in an expensive network of internal infrastructure.
Cloud computing can also accommodate product development with ease by facilitating collaboration with engineers and other members of the product development team much earlier in the design process, reducing the time frame from conception to launch.
Pass the Test
Quality often overtakes quantity in metal working, as errors can jeopardise both the function and appearance of products. One hurdle that manufacturers in the metal industry need to overcome is passivity.
Stainless steel doesn’t rust—in theory. Stainless steel is often corrosion resistant, but that doesn’t mean that it is completely impervious to rusting. To combat corrosion, the metal undergoes a treatment process known as passivation, which involves using an acidic solution to remove the free iron from the metal’s surface.
Once the surface iron is removed, the other components of the alloy—namely chromium and nickel—are left behind as a surface layer over the steel. Once these elements react with air, they form a protective oxide layer that prevents the steel from rusting.
More frequently, customers are asking for a passivity guarantee to ensure the quality of their steel. But measuring, verifying and reporting on an invisible layer of protective coating can be difficult, time-consuming and expensive. During testing, a section of steel that has undergone the same treatment as the end product is sent for verification from an independent lab.
However, concluding that the results from this sample are the same as those of the finished component is little more than an assumption—leaving manufacturers with little choice but to hope that the product passes the test. What’s more, receiving the test results can take hours, which could delay shipping if correction is required.
Cloud computing can provide a solution. With the help of a wireless tester, smartphone and cloud-based technology, data can be captured and reported from any location. Not only can IoT-enabled remote testing speed up the passivity process, but uploading the results to the cloud means that they can be shared with other departments and customers in an instant.
One surface technology company has already developed a cloud-based solution to streamline passivity testing. Walter Surface Technologies helps machine shops and fabricators leverage IoT technology with its cloud-based passivation app, which allows technicians to chart oxidation levels of stainless steel to measure its passivation state and seamlessly communicate it with the company’s customers.
Perhaps one of the best uses of the cloud is as part of asset maintenance. Sensors that collect data on the health of equipment can send this information to the cloud for analysis. There, a streaming data processor transmits the sensor data to storage, otherwise known as a data lake.
The data is still raw at this point, so may contain irrelevant items. To turn the data into insightful information, it is sent to the big data warehouse where it is analysed with machine learning algorithms. These algorithms reveal correlations in datasets and detect any abnormal patterns.
This data collected can then be fed back into planned predictive maintenance (PPM) schemes and remote monitoring of equipment. Unlike reactive maintenance, which involves waiting for a piece of machinery to break, PPM can be used ahead of time to prevent breakdowns and downtime.
For example, a brake press used to bend sheet metal into complex shapes requires accurate control for precise bending. To maintain a high level of product quality, it is crucial that all the machines’ components are in perfect working order.
Let’s say a motor in the brake press is running at an abnormally high temperature. Data in the cloud would be able to flag this abnormality to prompt plant managers to get in touch with a parts supplier such as EU Automation before a breakdown occurs, drastically reducing the amount of associated downtime.
The days of the Bronze Age are long gone—but there’s no questioning that we’re in the golden age of digital manufacturing. Cloud computing boasts several benefits that allow the technology to deliver a scalable and insightful solution to a variety of industries. Metalworking may be one of society’s most ancient processes, but cloud-based solutions can help breathe life into the sector by monitoring its core processes, improving product quality and providing workers with actionable insight to increase efficiency.
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