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  • Writer's picturePaxton Shantz

What Does the Cloud Mean for Metal Fabrication?

By implementing new IIoT technologies, machine builder OEMs, job shops and large end users can improve on-time delivery, part quality and efficiency

Metal fabrication shop with cloud technologies

It’s an interesting paradox. The metal fabrication industry is simultaneously saturated with advanced digital control yet constrained by antiquated data management. As the pressure increases to deliver high-quality parts efficiently, on schedule and with more customization, it is becoming increasingly important to move past these typical constraints. Many engineers and fab shop managers have identified the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 as the solution. But with constant deadlines and machine maintenance, they remain unsure about which is which, where to start and what it means for them.

Although each term has a nice ring to it, in many cases the cloud is central to implementation – and the correct place to start. This is because the cloud is the brains of the operation that provides on-demand availability of computer/system resources, especially data storage, without direct active management by the user. In this analogy, IIoT forms the nerves and pathways of the sensory nervous system: the physical components that provide data and internet access to the cloud. And Industry 4.0 is the complete body known as the smart factory, enabling local mass production down to lot size 1.

So, the question, “What does the cloud mean for metal fabrication?” can be re-phrased much more powerfully as, “What does unconstrained availability to machine control systems and production data mean?” Relative to the metal fabrication industry, cloud technologies mean a readily available solution exists to improve on-time delivery, quality and efficiency, and it can be configured and implemented much easier than one might think.

Cloud migration is easier than you think

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were many signs that the metal fabrication industry was embracing cloud computing, but the pandemic has become an accelerant. For most, the stresses, strains and experiences of the last year have been enough to remove any remaining reservations about digital transformation and provided motivation to begin the migration. At the same time, new technologies, such as additive manufacturing, machines as a service, etc., are taking hold, and businesses have started to embrace reshoring and onshoring. In this changing environment, it is important to understand that migrating to the cloud requires relatively little time and capital investment to obtain large benefits in product improvements and business agility.

Beckhoff EK9160 IoT Coupler
The EK9160 IoT Bus Coupler from Beckhoff communicates directly to the cloud from I/O terminals like the EtherCAT EL34x3 3-phase power measurement series, providing critical performance data.

Because the metal fabrication industry has always focused on continuous improvement, getting started with cloud computing only requires documenting the data that is already known to influence business. The cloud can be used to analyze everything from the front end to the backend of the business. However, migration to the cloud usually begins with the data associated with the machines. Of course, the industry has machines ranging from manual to fully digitized, but all can take advantage of the cloud.

The fully integrated digital machines are obviously rich with data, but many cost-effective, easy-to-integrate solutions exist for semi-automated and manual machines. For example, a manual machine can be easily outfitted with a power measurement device that will support data collection on the machine idle time, run-time, downtime, tool load, etc. For machines without connected controls, such as older CNC machines that only communicate via serial interface, or without any communications at all, such as an older bar loader on a lathe, engineers can easily add a bus coupler or gateway device to transmit data from the I/O level to the cloud.

The importance of preprocessing data

Whether the data to collect is large or small, it is generally good practice to use local logic to pre-process data before transmitting it to the cloud. This strategy lowers data transmission and data storage requirements – that is, it eliminates unnecessary bandwidth utilization and costs. In addition, local pre-processing allows unifying of the data, which is necessary to make it easy to manage and integrate into analytics solutions. Again, business leaders usually know which metrics are key, but rather than port this information to the cloud, you should take time to break it down. Separate the information into the specific state changes that it represents and utilize local software that will do this for you.

Beckhoff C6015 ultra-compact Industrial PC
Industrial-hardened, PC-based machine controllers, such as the C60xx series ultra-compact IPCs, can pre-process data before transmitting it to the cloud for additional analysis.

This may seem challenging, but just as there are readily available solutions to collect data, there are also solutions that support local pre-processing of the data. Cost-effective Industrial PCs (IPCs) are excellent universal platforms that can also serve as edge computing devices. These machine controllers are easy to program and integrate. IPCs that can stand up to the tough production environments in metal fabrication provide an edge hardware platform that can run many software solutions, fitting wide-ranging edge computing implementation strategies.

Cloud-based analytics open the door

Time-stamped data records and the basic analytics (machine minimums, maximums, average cycle times, etc.) will almost immediately impact the ability to quickly make good decisions and improve the business ROI. But the future is going to reward those that work to create a complete temporal image of their process and production data.

Processing errors are synonymous with missed ship dates and lost profits. Having a complete temporal image of the process and production data will support quick recoveries from faults and failures. It will also provide additional safeguards against profit loss by supporting comprehensive condition monitoring, predictive maintenance, pattern recognition and machine optimization.

These benefits move the discussion past spontaneous troubleshooting to what can be accomplished with 24/7 monitoring of a single machine or a fleet of machines. The path to 24/7 monitoring is relatively simple in this context, as it only requires accepting that tools to perform these analytics simply require configuration, not programming, to produce everything from alarms to automatic code generation, either remotely or locally, and to display and share the data on easily configured dashboards.

Cloud-based analytics boost uptime and efficiency

As cloud engagement advances, the tremendous advantages of increasing machine uptime and efficiency become even more obvious. Again, rather than cloud integration being complex, there are readily available service tools that are perfect for updating, commissioning and troubleshooting machines.

TwinCAT Analytics screen from Beckhoff
New software offerings, such as TwinCAT IoT from Beckhoff, simplify analytics.

Data sent from running machines can be compressed into binary streams to save network bandwidth, and then transmitted for analytics processing. The analytics processing steps are built using pre-configured toolbox algorithms and can enable analysis of relevant lifetime, cycle time, tool efficiency, parts counter, overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and many other key metrics. The outputs from these algorithms can be used as inputs to other algorithms, shared as they are, or passed to higher level systems, such as ERP systems, machine learning systems or further cloud analytics tools.

In addition, signal paths can be visualized, and analysis results charted to mark significant data points. The data points can then be logically linked to production events to support quick identification of products, processes or machine inefficiencies from practically any location.

Cloud-based dashboards support data sharing

The last significant point about what the cloud means to metal fabrication is how to access and share the data and results. While most have become accustomed to looking at machine data natively displayed on a machine or with programming software, the cloud provides much more freedom concerning who is able to view the data and exactly what they are able to view.

Because the ability to access and share that cloud data has so many possibilities, it is best to look at it from the point of view of the necessary metrics. As the dashboards are constructed, the goal is to tell a story with each indicator, watch window, graph, map, etc. All of these are representations of metrics that have been deemed important. The more metrics shown, the more complete the story. Keeping the story concise and relevant only requires exercising the flexibility of the dashboard creation software. It should show measurable, understood and actionable information tailored specifically to the audience with access permission.

Industrial analytics dashboard from Beckhoff
One-click dashboard creation in TwinCAT allows engineers to visualize key metrics and tell the full story of how their machines and fab shops are performing.

As with so many other aspects of the cloud, dashboard creation may seem daunting, but there are many cost-effective and easy-to-use tools. For example, platforms are available that can seamlessly integrate web-based (HTML5) dashboards that can be easily customized for colors, logos, layouts, sort sequences, themes, languages and much more. These web-based dashboards are automatically generated based on the configured analytics algorithms.

Begin your cloud integration journey

Machine builder OEMs, small job shops and large end users alike have already heard many times that they must embrace and integrate cloud technologies. However, many are still operating in the traditional paradox of metal fabrication: advanced digital control alongside antiquated data management. It is well worth the time to change this dynamic now. Those that begin the journey will be the first to benefit from less downtime, higher quality parts and fewer missed ship dates. Those that do not may have a very difficult time catching up.

Want to learn more about applying cloud technologies to your fab shop? Contact your local Beckhoff sales engineer today.


Paxton Shantz, Beckhoff Automation LLC

Paxton Shantz is the Digital Manufacturing Industry Manager for Beckhoff Automation LLC.

A version of this article previously appeared in The Fabricator.


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