One of the topics that I’ve spent a considerable amount a time investigating lately is MEC (Multi-access Edge Computing). I’m learning as much as I can about it, and we’re writing about it here on connectedworld.com. I think it’s a really important topic for my readers and podcast listeners, too, because I talk to a lot of people who are looking to reduce the latency of their IoT (Internet of Things)-enabled solutions. I’ve talked and written about all the promise of 5G, and I believe that 5G will eventually solve a lot of issues that enterprises are facing today in terms of increasing network speeds and reducing latency; but MEC can help now even without 5G when it comes to latency.
At a recent AT&T Business Summit, I stopped by the AT&T booth and got to talk with the staff there and was able to see, in some cases, firsthand, how MEC solutions can help drive business and digital transformations for manufacturers. So let’s discuss what your options are right now.
We all know that manufacturing—and most industries, really—are facing a deluge of data, and businesses need to find ways to manage it. Say they’ve found ways to generate data, well, now they need to harness it. A lot of a manufacturers’ success in harnessing data is going to rely on network connectivity. When you have robots, mobile devices, and cameras—lots of cameras for various applications like security and detecting defects—you’re going to start running into bandwidth issues. Video applications in particular are just data hogs no matter which way you slice it.
A decade ago, everybody’s answer for IoT was the cloud. The cloud is great, but with the processing applications manufacturers need today, latency is an issue. Manufacturers need to be asking themselves: How latency sensitive are these applications? How business-critical are they? With MEC, you don’t need to hairpin traffic up to the cloud and back down.
With MEC, servers are acting like traffic cops. It does a sort of data slicing for you; it takes the wireless traffic that you’ve deemed business critical or latency sensitive, and it keeps that data within the four walls of the factory. That way, the data you’re producing and consuming within that factory stays right there, reducing the latency. And then beyond latency, there’s also the privacy and security benefits of MEC. When your data stays within your four walls, it’s not on the public internet. There’s value in that too.
A MEC solution I’ve seen in practice can produce near real-time alerts to help manufacturers improve safety and enforce rules. If you have a hard-hat zone, you can have a camera that’s going to identify anyone in that zone without a hard hat and send an alert to a technician and also set off a warning light. An AT&T Business customer is using this type of application in another context for clean rooms where employees must wear special “clean gear” to keep the manufacturing process uncontaminated. I guess some employees were trying to just run in and run out if a problem was a quick-fix, but with a system like this, the alert is sent so fast that you can’t cheat the system. If you’re in a clean room without the proper gear, you’re going to set off an alert.
Another video-related application in manufacturing is using cameras to monitor older equipment. So maybe you’re mid-upgrade across your plants and all of your machines aren’t upgraded yet. Traditionally, manufacturers have employees walking the factory floor to monitor and look for issues, but with the lower latency of MEC, you can mount a camera and have near real-time video intelligence that MEC enabled apps process for near real-time actionable feedback.
MEC with today’s 4G is a stepping-stone on the road to 5G. 5G will add more speed, reduce latency even more, and it’ll support the number of devices, sensors, and applications that are getting connected on an exponential scale. And then, MEC together with 5G will provide even greater value. So tell me, are you deploying MEC? Why or why not?
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