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Corporate Australia must invest in smart technology now 

24 Mar 2020

Article by Stratus director Mike Fyson.

In today's ongoing global pandemic, the business world has changed forever. We are living through an era steeped in uncertainty. Smart technology is playing a critical role in the business community's response to adjusting to new social and industry norms. 

Real-time data capture and insights are crucial for any organisation that needs to make informed decisions quickly while navigating fast-changing business conditions and workforce arrangements.  

A new range of smart technologies was unveiled recently at Rockwell's Automation on the Move (RAOTM) event held in Auckland. The event was timely, given the rising global COVID-19 crisis and reminded us as leaders that we must move swiftly with the times, adopt new technology where it makes sense, and prepare for a more connected, yet remote future.  

With the rise of new devices fuelled by the Internet of Things (IoT), there was a lot of discussion around the increasingly important role of edge computing, both now and into the future. 

The cloud vs edge debate 

Edge computing is a simple platform that makes sure organisations get reliable and timely delivery of data. The edge computing market is predicted to be worth more than $4 trillion by 2030 and the cloud computing market will be worth ten-fold; their growth is proportional to each other. 

Edge and cloud are often measured against each other, but they go together; they are complimentary. Cloud technology is influenced by IT, as opposed to OT driving the edge. Cloud technology is scalable and available everywhere.

It helps with disaster recovery by distribution within the cloud. It is also simple and cost-effective to administer and is highly suitable for development platforms. As a data repository, it can be easily accessed and used in data modelling with artificial intelligence and analytics. 

However, cloud cannot accommodate all environments, and so it isn’t always the right underlying infrastructure for remote or regional areas where IoT is essential given poor communication, lack of security and local internet lagging issues. A local edge server, however, provides centralised data without reliance on external internet links. The edge operates effectively in severe and harsh environments where businesses can be at risk of losing visibility of operations easily if they are solely relying on the cloud. 

Cloud services also cannot guarantee latency, meaning it is not a suitable model for deployments demanding real-time decisions. Edge can provide analytics based on real-time, up-to-date data. And cloud is not always reliable. Availability service levels and recent outages at public cloud facilities, including Amazon AWS and Azure, resulting in loss of data visibility, which for some customers is unacceptable. 

The point is, data must always be available to make real-time decisions. At the edge, your data is secure and locally visible, In the cloud, you have no idea where the information resides. Data in the cloud can be exposed externally to compromise security. Particularly sensitive data cannot be made available in a cloud. 

While cloud is used in traditional IT applications and analytics, it is not ideal for remote deployments in remote areas. As you can see, edge solves many issues that cloud does not. The hybrid edge/cloud deployment model has real-time, sensitive data processed at the edge while data that is neither time-sensitive nor confidential is kept in the cloud. They complement each other. 

Edge in action to prevent emergencies and failures 

The last few months have been a very difficult time for Australia. From natural disasters like the bush fires to severe drought and now the growing outbreak of COVID-19, Australia continues to experience harsh conditions. Smart technology, including the edge, is part of Australia's solution for survival.  

Edge computing is focused on timely decision making with time-sensitive data. It is the closest you can get to the data source and provides robust predictive analytics.

There is a huge demand on our hospitals due to the current pandemic. Edge technology is making sure hospitals' power, access, and other building management facilities operate at optimal and reliable levels. Our edge technology is also used to make sure our research laboratories are kept secure. 

In other use cases such as transport, edge computing is key to keeping everything running smoothly and staying up and running.  GPS data can better position the train, its timing, update its passengers and alert operations of potential faults, even in tunnels or remote areas. 

From the visibility of traffic conditions to tunnel monitoring and announcements, edge computing is key to delivering timely information to the control centre. With localised edge computation in the tunnel area, data is now accessible to make the right decisions to ensure the safety of passengers and efficiency of operations. 

In the utilities sector, edge computing helps to optimise energy use and flow rates with IoT water devices at water pumps without losing energy to vibration, heat and noise. Edge's data model makes the device energy efficient. Edge measures and helps improve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE).

We use that to measure energy effectiveness in smart buildings, air-conditioning and lighting equipment. We can then input data accordingly to maximise OEE. Edge helps customers make decisions that best utilise the source of energy and better manage electricity costs. 

Finally, it is important to note that IoT devices can be prone to cyberattacks, and this is where edge security comes into play. We must ensure sensitive data is protected when deploying devices.

Modern IoT devices with edge servers come with a single central security and control point as opposed to distributed servers and PCs across the plant floor. We can exercise caution by locking off the cabinets, securing USB ports and locking down the server environment to avoid security attacks. Edge computing addresses the security of IoT devices at industrial plants. 

What does the future hold? 

The future right now is highly uncertain and unpredictable. Yet a key benefit of smart technologies such as edge computing is its predictive power that enables us to make proactive changes while adapting based on real-time data. By predicting a potential crisis or failure, government and business leaders can focus on failure prevention and ensure service availability that does not impact operational productivity and performance.  

Along with edge technology, we will also see new technologies like augmented reality (AR) start to take off. As presented at the Rockwell conference, AR has real commercial application benefits especially given the rise in connected sensors and devices. For example, AR can help industrial plants by projecting a digital overlay on the plant. 

An expert in the US can investigate a water pump station in Australia as if he was physically there. He can provide guidance to its local plant operator in real-time with the necessary information. With AR, you don't have to fly an expert to a location, which in the current environment with travel bans and restrictions, is impossible. 

Instead, an expert on the line has access to data and is making the most up to date decision based on that data. A local engineer with no IT expertise or idea about machines can follow his simple directions. Such is the power of smart technology. 

At the moment, when workforces are being forced to work remotely, AR, edge and other smart technologies will be crucial for transitioning businesses through these unprecedented times.