How cloud-based collaboration is changing manufacturing. By Andy Bell

The rate of cloud adoption has increased across all industries – for organisations it’s no longer a case of asking ‘should we make the move?’ but rather, ‘how can we get there?’ Many recognise the advantages that cloud technology can offer but aren’t sure of the path they need to take in order to fully leverage its capabilities.

For the manufacturing industry, cloud-based technology has a huge part to play in the digital factory – it provides manufacturers with connectivity and visibility across their operations. It also enables digital tools to be rolled-out quickly, facilitating collaboration and improving efficiencies for teams. In such a competitive and fast-paced industry, this ability to react to market changes is essential.

To stay one step ahead, many manufacturers are looking to leverage emerging technologies, such as blockchain or IoT (Internet of Things), and at the same time need to find ways to get on top of the growing amount of data with which they are faced. The cloud provides them with the ideal platform to do this.

Connectivity is vital for manufacturing operations – companies need to be able to share data and interpret it quickly so that smarter business decisions can be made. These types of data-driven decisions now lie at the heart of everything a successful business does.

Cloud solutions are best positioned to facilitate the collection and connection of this data from operational technology. Working hand-in-hand with the evolution of IoT, which has quickly become an essential part of the digital factory, this new breed of solution can help us to easily transfer information between connected devices – whether these are located on the factory floor or in the back office.

With vast quantities of data, this ability to gain real-time information has never been more important. Manufacturers need accurate information so they can make changes where it matters. They can then be proactive with their operations and plan effectively – if there’s consumer demand for a certain product, production levels can be adjusted accordingly, for example. Or, if a machine is near end of life and likely to break down, alerts can trigger preventative maintenance to be carried out before this happens if information about its condition is available. Additionally, external data sources such as weather forecasts can be automatically accessed and blended with internal data to enrich the overall picture and contribute to more informed decisions.

Machines can only do so much though. Employees also play an essential role in making digital change a success – and cloud- based technology can play a huge part in bringing them together more effectively.

Moving your team’s working processes to cloud applications is a great way to improve their productivity and facilitate collaboration. For some organisations, communication on the factory floor is still documented by pen and paper, with entry into the system lagging and happening at the end of each shift or day. This manual method of reporting means managers can’t review progress, or report on any issues, until sometime after the event.

With real-time tracking of production progress and inventory levels though, staff can examine products at every point in their lifecycle via a tablet or smartphone. Products can be scanned using barcodes or QR codes to see they are where they should be and automate transactions. Automatic inspection software can also make it much easier for staff to identify any faults in products.

When everyone is working in this way, on the same system and viewing the same data, there will be no limitations when it comes to communicating across departments, offices or factories. People won’t have to waste time looking for siloed information – they will be able to source it easily from one place. Teams can then be freed up to focus on meaningful work, rather than struggling to fill in the gaps.

Business Systems
However, migrating your business processes to a cloud environment doesn’t come without its share of challenges and associated risks. There are elements of change that must be factored into the implementation process. How easily will you be able to integrate the new technology with existing systems? Will employees require a change management strategy to get them up to speed with working on new cloud-based tools?

When it comes to the IT infrastructure, customisation of existing systems can present potential roadblocks – it might be that you have been working on legacy systems that are proving hard to update and are inflexible in how they have been set up.

Ultimately, organisations will need a single source of truth to drive through this move to the cloud. With a next-gen ERP system, such as SAP’s S/4HANA sitting at the heart of the enterprise, cloud-based applications will become easier to access and roll-out. With a strong digital core, nothing will be left disparate – you’ll be able to see what’s going on in all areas.

Once they’ve made the move to cloud, manufacturers can start to benefit from the efficiencies and scalability that it can offer them, putting them in the best position to embrace change and innovate quickly. Those who embrace its potential are set up for years to come.

Andy Bell
Andy Bell is CTO at Edenhouse Solutions. Edenhouse has many years’ experience working with businesses to maximise their SAP investments. Its SAP specialists implement the latest SAP technologies and Cloud innovations, and through its unrivalled SAP Support Services it is dedicated to helping customers optimise their investment in SAP.