Times remain hard for the global manufacturing sector. Growth in US manufacturing has slowed, according to the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) Manufacturing Report, which registered a factory index of 50.8, down from 51.6 a month earlier. Even China is reporting a slowdown, with the country’s Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) falling to 50.4 in October from 51.2 in the previous month.

In the UK, the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply (CIPS)/Markit manufacturing PMI sank to 47.4 in October from September’s reading of 50.8, pushing the index down to its lowest level since June 2009 – when the economy was still in recession.

These disappointing figures mean that, in order to remain competitive, firms must now deliver projects within very tight deadlines, putting engineers under increasing pressure to transform ideas into workable designs that can be accessed anywhere and at any time.  These are conditions in which cloud computing – with its ability to drive down costs and boost business agility – has the potential to deliver extensive benefits.

The growing sense that the time is now right for the cloud in manufacturing is further strengthened by the rapid adoption rate of tablets and other mobile devices. This trend is beginning to significantly change the way people communicate and consume content, as well as further driving the requirement for accessible design.

Increasingly, modern manufacturers are realising the potential of these portable platforms to extend the sales reach of a new design by presenting ideas to clients and prospects in a more accessible manner. As many parts of the manufacturing sector continue to target more global audiences, servicing remote markets is also of key importance, and brings with it a greater requirement for enhanced mobility. The cloud enables users to store, view and share work through web browsers or mobile devices, anywhere and at any time – unlocking far greater flexibility in engineering software as a result.

Arguably the greatest benefit to manufacturers, however, is the vast off-site computing power it can offer – in particular to SMEs – as it will enable them to access and exploit computing power previously available only to the largest enterprises. More specifically, cloud-based services are bringing greater access for designers and engineers to sophisticated high performance rendering, 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 and at lower cost.

The increased online storage capacity for Autodesk Cloud, for example, is expected to facilitate 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, as well as the functionality to view, edit and share designs from wherever they are at a given time.

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. For example, in recent trials, the cloud FEA optimisation services enabled beta testers to analyse mechanical structures up to ten times faster than they could manage locally, because the ability to run multiple analysis jobs in parallel in the cloud meant they could analyse ten FEA calculations as quickly as one. The cloud also has the potential to dramatically improve on design and creative process through faster design renderings, the creation of more design iterations in less time and with fewer resources, in addition to facilitating seamless collaboration. 

The potential for these powerful analysis and optimisation capabilities is, therefore, incredibly exciting, not least in the fact that 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.

While it remains to be seen how quickly manufacturers adopt the technology, the cloud will undoubtedly herald new possibilities for design engineers.