Cloud M2M expands IT possibilities without emptying wallets

Aaron Lester, Contributor

The number of connected devices on the planet is approaching nearly 7 billion -- one for every man, woman and child, according to some estimates. Given the technology's ubiquity, it's no wonder manufacturers are harnessing it in the form of machine-to-machine (M2M) technology to gain unprecedented connectivity and real-time intelligence, both on the plant floor and along the supply chain. But not every manufacturer has the infrastructure, know-how or cash to take advantage of the power of M2M. That's where cloud M2M services come in.

"At the end of the day, they're bending metal and shipping product out the door," said Matt Jennings, vice president of business development at Digi International, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based M2M products and services vendor. "They typically don't have overly strong integration expertise or network management expertise."

Luckily for manufacturers, Jennings said, the ability to leverage the cloud has made acquiring M2M capabilities a reality for most manufacturers because it makes implementation both simpler and cheaper.

By purchasing those capabilities through a cloud environment, "they now have infrastructure in place -- a Platform as a Service model -- that will send the data, manage the devices and update firmware," Jennings said.

Cloud M2M powerful, yet accessible

One of the main benefits of cloud M2M is access to professional enterprise class services, technologies and processes at affordable prices, according to Robert Andres, chief marketing officer at Eurotech, an Italian-based company specializing in manufacturing mobile and embedded hardware and software. "This is technology that you could otherwise only afford as a large enterprise," he said.

The cloud also offers economies of scale for the provider.

"We've taken our customer base and put them on a platform that's consistent across the board," said Dan Murphy, vice president of marketing at cloud services provider Axeda in Foxboro, Mass. "Instead of individual implementations and support problems being unique to each customer, we have a consolidated infrastructure that our on-demand center hosts and maintains."

Cloud M2M also gives manufacturers the flexibility to take advantage of the data streaming in from M2M-enabled assets in new ways. Once the infrastructure is there, manufacturers can begin to add value by offering new services remotely, according to Jennings.

Manufacturers can now be connected to an asset and stream data about its health and activity in the field. "Once that data is applied into the business, you can change your processes to do other things," he said. "A lot of new things are happening … around logistics, repair and maintenance, customer service and warranty management," Jennings said.

This is all possible because devices are connected and pushing data up into the cloud, and manufacturers are able to liberate that data and use it in all the different business processes, said Murphy.

Preparing for a cloud M2M implementation

If a manufacturer is convinced that cloud M2M capabilities are the way to go, there are some key factors they should keep in mind before implementation, experts say.

"Security is a primary requirement," Murphy said. "We monitor all of the information as it goes in transit, so there's no way that somebody could scoop an endpoint and hack into the system. And we have ways to validate that those endpoints are true."

For Andres, the attention a customer should devote to security depends on the individual circumstances and the kind of data that's being collected. In Europe, for example, the requirements for data privacy are very high, he noted. "We have customers that say, 'We can't use a public cloud offering. We can't put our data there,'" Andres said.

Specific manufacturing verticals may have very different kinds of cloud M2M requirements from one another. Take a medical device manufacturer, for example. If a manufacturer develops an MRI machine that is able to communicate back to the manufacturer, the hospital has to be comfortable with that potential security vulnerability, and the product must meet federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) requirements.

Manufacturers also need to be able to point to others who've had success with the vendor and see a proven record of delivering the capability to scale to millions of devices, Murphy added. The vendor must be able to handle the data requirements that any given device would have.

Unlike ERP systems of record, there are no one-stop-shops for M2M products that can provide strategy, implementation and relevant hardware and software. The market is spread out among niche players such as Arduino and ARM, which produce hardware, and large players like Cisco, AT&T and even G.E., each focusing on a particular vertical market or segment of the overall M2M system, from infrastructure and applications to devices, platforms and integration services.

To be sure, there are organizations that can implement their own M2M technology by investing in the necessary on-premises infrastructure -- think Apple or General Motors -- "but it's going to be faster and much less expensive if they leverage what's in the cloud, rather than making that investment themselves," said Jennings. "It really allows you to sidestep complexity by having cloud functionality available."

"When you have a cloud-based M2M platform, you have the benefit of having all that work done upfront for you -- the security, the scalability, the data modeling and the entire core infrastructure that goes along with it," Murphy added. "It just doesn't make sense to go off and build this infrastructure yourself."

Follow SearchManufacturingERP on Twitter @ManufacturingTT.

View the next item in this Essential Guide: Tips for combatting M2M security risks or view the full guide: An essential guide to M2M technology for manufacturers

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