Simon Pamplin, director of technical sales at Silver Peak looks at how Industry 4.0 technologies and the network can fuel manufacturing post COVID-19

It is no secret that manufacturing was severely impacted by the disruption caused by the COVID-19 global pandemic. With many manufacturing jobs performed on-site and with no option to be carried out remotely, facilities have been shuttered to safeguard employees from the spread of the virus. Couple this with the reduced global demand for industrial products caused by the slowed economic activity, and global manufacturing has a deep hole to climb out of.

According to Rob Dobson, a director of IHS Markit, changes to working practices, uncertainty about how long the COVID-19 restrictions may be in place for, weak demand and Brexit worries all suggest the UK is set for a drawn-out economic recovery. This will make the ‘new normal’ one of the toughest recovery environments many manufacturers will ever have to face.

Benefits of Industry 4.0

Forward-thinking manufacturers have already begun looking toward Industry 4.0 technologies as a path to increased efficiencies. Manufacturers will need to double down on these technologies if they are to recover quickly from the current situation.

Whilst these technologies and the data they generate can offer a variety of operational benefits for manufacturers, it will also present challenges when it comes to data traversing the network. If manufacturers want to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Industry 4.0 technologies, they will need to rearchitect their network infrastructures to address these demands, lest they negatively affect the quality of experience to users.

Looking at IoT devices, which create huge volumes of data, they will need to communicate with each other at the ‘edge,’ as well as with cloud applications. The best-case scenario for achieving this is through software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), although hybrid WAN architectures, which bridge from dedicated data centre and MPLS resources to public shared cloud resources can serve as a transition for manufacturers not yet ready to take the full plunge into SD-WAN.

Enabling high speed connections

If manufacturers do indeed want to shift from a hybrid WAN configuration to a broadband SD-WAN, they will need to do away with the traditional router-centric approach to the WAN, which is optimised for branch to data centre communications and was not architected to handle the cloud-destined WAN traffic required for today’s sophisticated use cases. As SD-WAN can also utilise 5G transport, it will play a crucial role in expanding the number of IoT devices that can be reliably connected to the network, enabling a virtual network of ultra-high-speed connections across multiple devices.

What is apparent when it comes to Industry 4.0 technologies is that there is a huge amount of complexity involved. It is not simply a matter of increased volumes of data, but different types from a variety of devices and applications that need to be processed and analysed differently in order to be turned in to actionable insights, all without impacting the end user quality of experience. It is necessary then to have a certain level of automation and orchestration embedded within the network itself to manage this. Thankfully, advanced SD-WAN solutions can now increasingly apply AI to fill in network services with better context and connectivity. In this intelligent way, the WAN ‘speaks’ to the edge devices in branch offices and decipher what a device is based on its IP address. When combined with other multi-level intelligence, this enables automated policy orchestration across the large number of devices and applications one might find in a global manufacturing company.

Although there is a steep hill for manufacturers to climb, those that can quickly adapt can demonstrate their worth during this period of crisis. A recent study from Boston Consulting Group found that 14 per cent of manufacturing companies increased sales growth and profitability during the four most recent global economic slowdowns by successfully implementing digital solutions. If today’s manufacturers want to be amongst those successful minority, they will have to accelerate their deployment of Industry 4.0 technologies and ensure the network on which they run is architected to take full advantage of them.