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COVID's Impact on AI, IoT, Edge Computing, and Analytics

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The big surprise during the pandemic was how quickly manufacturers moved to implement industrial technology.

2020 may have passed, but its effects on industrial technology will likely go on for years. We saw an unprecedented change in nearly all sectors, upending the previous year’s plans and expectations for growth. We saw manufacturers move impressively to adopt digital technology despite the challenges caused by the global pandemic – sometimes because of those challenges. We saw particular growth in emerging technologies such as AI, IoT, edge computing, and analytics.

As business leaders sought ways to remain resilient, they brainstormed innovation possibilities that might help them keep up with ever-evolving technology trends and customer needs. Christine Boles, VP of the IoT Group and general manager of the Industrial Solutions Division at Intel, offered some observations on the technology advances that are likely to flourish in the coming months and years.

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The Investment in Advanced Automation

During the pandemic, advanced technology became imperative. Companies needed agility, efficiency, and visibility. “The pandemic has greatly accelerated the need for companies to complete their Industry 4.0 transformations with solutions that allow them to have more flexibility, visibility, and efficiency,” Boles told Design News. “We saw an acceleration of the adoption of solutions that help address that need. That meant AI, machine learning, machine vision, and advanced analytics.”

Boles believes the pressure to deploy advanced systems will not let up as the pandemic passes. “As the economy bounces back, we’ll continue to see investment in the foundational OT infrastructure with more IT capabilities to allow the broad ecosystem of players to deploy these solutions and will see Industry 4.0 adoption significantly ramp up in 2021,” said Boles.

Technology As a Competitive Factor

Part of the spur to accelerate advanced automation was the direct benefits from the investments. “One of the impacts of the pandemic was an increased awareness of and plans to accelerate Industry 4.0 or software-defined industrial systems deployment,” said Boles. “What we’ve heard from customers and have seen in studies is that companies that were implementing Industry 4.0 saw the benefit of those investments – specifically companies that had remote visibility and/or control of operations.”

Companies that had not yet started to implement advanced technology started to see the need to get going. “For those that were considering or had not yet started, they started to see the importance of that infrastructure investment and capabilities,” said Boles.

The remote capabilities in particular became attractive. Manufacturers wanted to remotely manage and enable updates by employees and equipment suppliers who could not travel to a site. “They began to see that remote connectivity supported the safety of employees on the shop floor and utilizes machine learning and vision capabilities through the operations,” said Boles.

2020 Tech Advances Will Gain More Steam in 2021

During 2020, companies used technology to maintain their positions within their community of customers, suppliers, and employees. Going forward, they see greater promise in using technology to advance their positions. “While more manufacturers see the reason and have more justification for implementing Industry 4.0 strategies, the focus in 2020 was on maintaining business continuity and managing in the current economic environment realities,” said Boles. “As we move past the pandemic and see overall economic recovery, I expect to see an acceleration of digital transformation realized with Industry 4.0 strategies.”

Industry 4.0 technology also promises to settle the persistent conflicts between OT and IT networking. “We will see the convergence of OT and IT accelerate, having the ability to manage OT systems like we manage IT infrastructure,” said Boles. “We will also see bringing machine learning capabilities into the edge of the operations, within the machines, or in the cells of the shop floor.”

Boles noted that Intel was expecting the move to advanced technology and was prepared to support companies as they adopted new technology. “At Intel, we saw this market trend coming and prepared for it by investing in our silicon and software platform solutions to bring the benefits of our open platform approach to industrial systems and to accelerate our ecosystem of partners to deliver IT like capabilities in OT systems, and to bring machine learning and machine learning capabilities into the factory operations,” said Boles. “The realities of 2020 only underscored that direction, and I expect to see 2021 and beyond, accelerate this industry’s transformation.”

AI, Machine learning, and Machine Vision Coming in 2021

The specific technologies companies have been using to improve their systems range from artificial intelligence to edge computing. “AI and more specifically machine learning, and machine vision are foundational to the future of manufacturing as we move to autonomous operations,” said Boles. “We talk about edge computing or distributed computing and bringing intelligence to the edge of the operations across many industries. This is about utilizing the data that exists across the factory floor and its machines, systems, and products, and utilizing machine learning and machine vision to unleash the value of that data to derive insights and take action.”

Part of the shift to industrial technology was supported by intelligent machines provided by the vendor community. “We have ecosystem providers that have solutions that can bring machine vision support into critical production steps using an Industrial PC based on Intel,” said Boles. “We will start to see more manufacturing equipment utilize compute platforms such as Intel’s where support for computing needs of machine learning or machine vision, can be brought together on the same system as control, with the foundation of IT system requirements.”

Advanced Analytics Added to Smart Machines

Manufacturers have been able to integrate their networked systems into the machines themselves. “For example, we see robotics providers bringing machine vision alongside their robotics controls to bring new insight and then action,” said Boles. “And we have ecosystem partners using Intel-based Industrial PCs to support the legacy automation systems while adding on machine learning utilizing our edge software reference designs.”

Going forward, manufacturers will begin to use their intelligent systems for advanced analytics. “Manufacturers will continue to use advanced analytics optimizing production flow for maximum output and product quality control,” said Boles. “As manufacturers accelerate digital transformation strategies, they will have greater visibility and access to data across the production equipment and operations. Those advanced analytics will also benefit from increased visibility from the data.”

Rob Spiegel has covered manufacturing for 19 years, 17 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include automation, supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cybersecurity. For 10 years, he was the owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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