The main concern of any manufacturing company should be designing and building outstanding products – not maintaining firewalls, applying security patches or putting in the painstaking work required to detect sophisticated cyber attacks and stop them in their tracks before they wreak havoc.
That’s not to say cybersecurity isn’t a big challenge for manufacturers. A May 2021 report from manufacturers’ organisation Make UK found that almost half of the companies surveyed (47 per cent) had been the target of cyber crime during the preceding 12 months. Of those companies that experienced an attack, more than six out of ten said it cost them up to £5,000, while almost a quarter (22 per cent) placed the costs involved at between £5,000 and £25,000.
The rush to remote working triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated an already worrying situation. As lockdowns were imposed, many employees went to great lengths to ensure they had copies of the sensitive product development information they needed, carting CAD files between workplaces and homes on removable drives, USB sticks and hastily purchased laptops.
There are now legitimate fears that those files, many of which contain valuable intellectual property, could be at risk. And with every copy of a file that exists, a company’s security risk footprint simply expands.
A product development team of 20 people may be working together to design a new product. That could mean 20 copies of a CAD file, sitting on 20 different devices. If just one member of the team ends up clicking on a phishing email or falls victim to ransomware, that file could be seriously compromised. If just one team member fails to install a security upgrade on their device, the results could be just as bad.
And those are just the technical risks. There are also people-related risks to consider, if copies of files are being passed around freely between colleagues and third parties such as component suppliers or machining shops. It only takes one bad actor for that file to fall into the wrong hands.
Given this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that executives at manufacturing companies are increasingly open to the idea of using the cloud as a venue for creating, managing and storing this kind of file. After all, cloud-based programs for communication and collaboration kept them up and running during the pandemic – so even the most cloud-sceptic bosses are starting to look at this technology in a new light.
They’re right to do so. For a start, the companies running the world’s largest cloud services are also home to some of the world’s largest and most highly skilled security teams. They have resources at their disposal that not even the biggest global manufacturers can rival.
But there’s more to it than that, because software-as-a-service (SaaS) platforms for product development and other manufacturing-related software can do a great deal to plug the vulnerabilities that most manufacturers face.
For a start, employees can get on with their work via a web browser, from any location, without having a copy of a file they’re working on hosted on their own device. Right there, you see a dramatic uplift in security posture, because that file remains at all times under the watchful eye of that cloud vendor’s large, highly skilled security team and located on the cloud provider’s servers.
On top of that, there’s no software to install locally – and to upgrade and patch as new threats and vulnerabilities emerge. That’s yet another weight off the manufacturing boss’s mind.
But perhaps the biggest boon offered by SaaS is the way that it supports secure sharing and collaboration, without copies of files flying around all over the place. Authorised employees can access what they need, when they need it, using their carefully managed authentication credentials. It’s my experience that at many manufacturing firms, when collaboration is made safe and easy in this way, collaboration actually goes up.
And if an employee at that component supplier or machining shop needs to check a minor detail, they can be given access to that file – and just that file – on a temporary basis. When they’re done, access can be shut off again.
In the background, SaaS systems keep a careful audit trail of who accessed what and for how long – so any concern about intellectual property leaks can be quickly addressed, because a careful record of all activity within that system is kept.
Security is not the only reason why manufacturing companies should make the shift to cloud-based CAD – but it’s an important one. As leadership teams work to recover from the pandemic, they’re also looking to increase resilience against future shocks. SaaS systems boost collaboration, promote innovation and enable companies to attract talented product developers who can work from home, regardless of where they live – but most of all, they enable companies to reap those benefits in a way that keeps their valuable intellectual property safe at all times, despite the best efforts of even the most determined cyber criminals.
Jon Hirschtick is general manager for Onshape and Atlas at PTC.