Many trends in the economy in general, and in technology, in particular, face resistance due to initial risks and unknowns associated with them. Cloud computing is not immune to such resistance, especially in the manufacturing space including process manufacturing. However, looking back at some historical trends, who would have thought 15 years ago that globalization would take a firm foothold in our daily lives, and that the majority of software running mission-critical business processes would be written in India and China? At some point the psychological barrier that initially prevented organizations from outsourcing software that runs their businesses was shattered and now these organizations find themselves reliant on offshore resources for most software development needs.

Cloud computing, as we define it today, is running applications hosted in large datacenters over the Internet. Depending on the configuration of the datacenter deployment, location, and ownership, applications are said to run in public clouds or private clouds. Cases can be made for certain applications to run in a public cloud setting and others to run in private clouds. The general thinking is that, for business-specific applications, private cloud deployments are the way to go.

People in the manufacturing space think it is inconceivable to trust their mission critical data to the cloud. They think that there is no way they could store such data in remote datacenters and access it over the Internet. This belief stems from the perceived risk of their data getting violated by hackers, having outages that prevent proper access when needed, and many other reasons. These doubts are only magnified in the chemical, pharmaceutical, and other process manufacturing industries. Such industries rely heavily on patents and secret recipes for their products. They think that putting their data in a cloud environment would jeopardize their intellectual properties and weaken their position in the marketplace. Besides, some of these industries, such as chemical manufacturing, are considered national critical infrastructure that warrant extra protection against cyber terrorism.

While it is valid for people to be concerned about the safety and security of their data and intellectual properties, we find ourselves happily trusting our mission critical data to the cloud in certain scenarios. One of the most successful business applications running in the cloud is Customer Relationship Management (CRM). Think of what kind of data such systems hold. They hold critical data related to customers, sales, support, and marketing in the organization. In other words, if you trust the cloud with such data, why not trust it with other data sets that you deal with on a daily basis? If you think your sales leads are safely stored in online CRM systems and securely accessed over the Internet, why not trust that your data historian or clinical trials will also be treated the same way?

If you are assured that your data will be safely stored, securely transmitted, and can be accessed securely only by those who are authorized to access it; and yet at a much lower cost, would you consider having it stored and accessed it in a cloud environment? If your answer is still not certain, I am sure it will change over the next few years. Some surveys already show that nearly half of large manufacturing organizations are using cloud computing in some way or another. It is true that usage scenarios are still limited, but they are slowly and constantly expanding into new territories. Pretty soon we will see more organizations opting to do their high performance computing (HPC) needs in the cloud because it is the sensible thing to do. The cloud is optimized to handle high computation loads and optimize the use of hardware assets in the datacenter. Why worry about building very expensive and complex HPC infrastructure on-premise that is very hard to build, manage, and maintain when you can use someone else’s on demand? With this, you will be able to focus and accelerate the research and development work that uses HPC as a tool and get more accurate results, rather than focus on the tool itself. This is just one of many possible scenarios that lend themselves well to cloud deployments in process manufacturing. We will expand on such scenarios in subsequent posts.

For software vendors in the manufacturing space, many will see a new opportunity in cloud computing to create new business models that will reap more benefits for their organizations. Cloud computing will also level the playing field for smaller software providers allowing them to have a good chance to innovate new solutions that could be brought to market much faster and cheaper with greater reach than they could ever imagine.

These are but some of the benefits of cloud computing for manufacturers and software vendors and regardless of deployment mechanisms, cloud computing, as we know it today, has arrived and will only become more ubiquitous with time. The small, but steadily growing, number of compelling scenarios of cloud computing in process manufacturing tells about the psychological shift taking place towards this technology. In a few years from now we will see many mission critical applications in process manufacturing run in the cloud.

Let us know what you think, will process manufacturers be more accepting to cloud applications and how soon? What other benefits and cloud scenarios can you think of that could be applicable to this space?