How cloud computing can benefit machine builders

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Richard Tinsdeall, Autodesk's manufacturing sales director for Northern Europe, explains how machine builders can benefit from using computer-aided engineering tools that are hosted on the cloud.

Across Europe, the adoption of cloud-based computing is accelerating as large enterprises and small businesses become convinced of the business case for the approach. In a recent study of IT decision-makers across Europe, carried out by analyst IDG Research, 87 per cent said that cloud computing was either a critical, high or moderate priority for their organisations over the next 18 months.

It seems likely that the extensive benefits that the cloud can bring businesses - from significant reductions in upfront capital expense and maintenance charges, to instant scalability and enhanced business agility - are becoming too compelling to ignore.

The latest evidence suggests that manufacturers are increasingly using Cloud computing. In a new survey polling the opinions of CAD users attending Autodesk's recent series of Digital Prototyping Forums across Europe, 44 per cent of the sample agreed with the statement "Our company uses the cloud today because it facilitates data exchange and collaboration internally and with partners, and because it offers virtually unlimited computer power when we need it." Respondents also predicted a bright outlook for the technology, with 72 per cent confident that the cloud would "gain importance in the future because of an increasing need for collaboration and flexible, affordable computing power."

Current reasons for adoption

Considering the cloud is still in its infancy, especially in the design arena, these results indicate that we are seeing a revolution not just in attitudes but also in the way manufacturers use technology. CAD users and managers are not only looking forward to a future in the cloud; many are using it already.

It seems likely that current economic conditions are acting as a catalyst for this on-going migration to the cloud. Manufacturing in the Eurozone declined for the fifth consecutive month in December 2011. While Markit's manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) rose slightly to 46.9 from November's 28-month low of 46.4, overall the latest data shows that the economy is likely to have contracted in the last three months of 2011, threatening Europe with another recession.

Times are also tough for UK manufacturing. Despite a smaller than expected decline during December, the sector is still contracting and overall figures for the fourth quarter of 2011 showed the sharpest fall since the second quarter of 2009. These disappointing figures mean that, in order to remain competitive, firms must now deliver projects within tighter deadlines, putting engineers under increasing pressure to develop innovative products, ahead of the competition, with the best possible quality at the lowest possible price.

These are conditions in which cloud computing - with its ability to drive down costs and drive up productivity and quality - has the potential to deliver extensive benefits for hard-pressed manufacturing companies.

Cloud computing benefits

Arguably, the greatest benefit of the cloud to manufacturers is the vast off-site computing power it can command. While this is a significant benefit to all manufacturing companies, it is particularly advantageous to SMEs, enabling them to access and exploit computing power that was previously available only to large enterprises - and SMEs can therefore compete on a level playing field with their larger peers.

More specifically, cloud-based services are bringing greater access for designers and engineers to sophisticated high-performance design optimisation, simulation and analysis tools, previously only within the reach of organisations with local, high-end computing resources.

Using the cloud to extend the bandwidth of computing resources, manufacturers can now bring ideas to market much faster than before - and at significantly less cost.

As well as high-performance rendering, design optimisation and enhanced analysis capabilities, the much-increased online storage capacity for Autodesk Cloud is expected to facilitate much greater access to design and engineering documents. The hosted solutions it contains have the potential to give users the freedom to work where it is most effective for them to do so, as well as the functionality to view, edit and share designs from wherever they are at a given time.

100-times faster

While the obvious advantages of greater cloud computing capacity lie in the increased accessibility it brings, the scope and functionality has shown to go well beyond the simple option to put jobs in the cloud. In fact, cloud users could potentially run 100 design analyses in roughly the same time they would need to run just one simulation locally. This enables them to analyse a large number of design alternatives and easily select the best.

For example, the cloud has the potential to dramatically improve on the overall design and creative process through much faster simulation capabilities. In particular, the ability of the cloud to enable engineers to run a large number of FEA analyses simultaneously enables designers to optimise designs in a way that would not realistically be possible without it. The potential for these powerful analysis and optimisation capabilities is, therefore, very exciting - not least because it will support users in producing better, more reliable and less expensive designs in the cloud, increase the number of design options they can analyse and reduce hardware investments for the business. Crucially, the functionality also promotes innovation by supporting the testing of multiple design options and creating more sustainable designs and higher-quality products while reducing material, transportation and energy costs.

The future of the Cloud

While it remains to be seen how quickly machine builders adopt the technology, the cloud will undoubtedly herald new possibilities for design engineers. And whether it is used to solve tough operating or design challenges, the reach and possibilities undoubtedly now exist to accelerate innovation and provide a competitive edge.

The current economic downturn may have provided the impetus for the growing uptake of cloud computing across the manufacturing space. However, over the longer term, the compelling benefits that the cloud offers machine builders from an operational perspective is likely to ensure that this growth is maintained over the much longer term, as these organisations reap the rewards of stronger innovation and sharper competitive edge.

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