IT/OT collaboration must drive digitalization

Courtesy of CFE Media

Industry talk about the convergence of operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) assumes the two sides will merge into some common domain using IT methodologies, devices, tools, and team expertise ― with all of it being as applicable to a plant floor as to front- and back-office operations.

That notion, however, can be seriously misleading.

By itself, IT/OT convergence does little to actually move end-to-end digitalization forward. While it might provide short-term cost savings through more technology sharing and consolidated IT and OT teams, the performance gains will be incremental, at best, and not the quantum gains digitalization can unleash. Shop-floor applications of IT-oriented hardware, software, connectivity, and services always will need to be far more robust, precise and reliable than those needed in offices.

Instead of IT/OT convergence, industrial enterprises require a deep, cross-functional, and proactive collaborative approach that combines the respective intellectual power, know-how, and experience of IT and OT teams to make today’s industrial operations fully digital enterprises. The goal would be to collectively understand the unique terminology and design requirements for all network environments, especially in context of the network as the strategic backbone of a fully digital industrial enterprise.

Roots of the IT/OT convergence myth

The idea of IT/OT convergence is understandable. After all, IT and telephones were once separate functions and networks in most large companies, but they converged years ago thanks to packetized voice-over-IP (VoIP) technology. What’s more, OT engineers have adapted many enterprise IT technologies to address the needs of a diverse industrial landscape that spans factories, warehouses, logistics facilities, plus power, marine, mining, and oil and gas industries.

Among those technologies are Ethernet-enabled wired and wireless local area networks (WLANs) as well as industrial PCs, switches and routers. Industrial operators are continue to adapt emergent enterprise IT technologies, such as the cloud, Big Data, and advanced analytics, compelled by the economic advantages and competitive imperatives of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

The benefits of these IT adaptations have included big reductions in costs, latencies, cycle times and data collection errors. Industrial communications ― the digital thread ― also has helped interconnect what were once islands of activities and data, while helping to break down operational silos. Greater transparency and operational visibility also enable far better decision support for optimizing asset utilization as well as production quality, flexibility and costs.

Adapting enterprise IT for complex OT applications

Adapting IT solutions for complex OT applications goes far beyond putting a veneer of ruggedization on devices.

For example, OT automation systems consisting of hundreds or even thousands of field-level devices ― sensors, actuators, valves and instrumentation ― need precise, millisecond synchronizations of activities. Supporting networks must be deterministic. Data commands must arrive when they are supposed to and not on a best-effort basis. A network hiccup that delays an outbound email by a half-second might not be noticed by a user, but a similar delay in a controller command arriving at its destination could disrupt a production line.

The consequences could be missed customer commitments, costly restarts, or, worst of all, worker injuries. Many leading industrial enterprises are not converging IT and OT technologies because they know doing it is beside the point.

The real point of IT/OT collaboration is to establish vibrant digital threads of data running transparently, seamlessly, and securely through businesses from the factory floor to the boardroom and everywhere in between.

Facilitating IT/OT collaboration for end-to-end digital enterprises

Rather than pushing their IT and OT teams to force even a blending of two necessarily distinct technology environments, these companies prefer them collaborating to make an end-to-end digital enterprise a reality for their companies. To do so, each team needs to understand the other’s expertise and points of view, which includes their chief concerns.

Three concerns for IT and factory digitalization

1. Environmental, health, and safety impacts. While technology failures or security incidents can certainly disrupt enterprise operations, similar incidents in an industrial environment can cause disruptions and consequences on a different scale, even threatening lives and the environment.

2. Asset availability and utilization. Networked industrial systems can create business risks most IT teams may not yet had to consider, such as the damage or loss of expensive equipment or the production of faulty goods. Production disruptions also can cause industrial enterprises to miss customer commitments. Poor asset availability and utilization also can lower investment returns.

3. Outdated or custom systems. IT is used for applying frequent and consistent software patches and upgrades, while industrial environments tend to be more systemic: one small change in one component or subsystem can trigger changes or disruptions elsewhere. Many legacy plant and factory control systems, as a result, may be running outdated operating systems that cannot easily be swapped out or a custom configuration that isn’t compatible with the standard enterprise IT security packages. 

Four concerns for OT with enterprise connectivity

1. Physical risks and safety. Threats to life safety are still a concern, but OT teams now face threats that are potentially outside of their control. Connecting machines, equipment and control systems to more open enterprise networks can leave them vulnerable to hacking. Hacks can override valve controls and emergency shut-offs, exposing employees to danger and production to costly disruptions.

2. Productivity and quality control. Losing control of the manufacturing process or any related devices are an OT team’s worst nightmare. What if some malicious party was able to reprogram an assembly process to skip a few steps or halt production entirely ― resulting in a faulty product that could potentially injure a customer user?

3. Data leaks. While data breaches have long been a top concern for traditional IT teams, they are somewhat new to OT teams used to working with closed systems. However, given the types of industrial systems coming online, securing transmitted data is critical.

4. Industrial security. While OT teams can see the benefits of moving from closed systems to open networks, they worry about a seeming lack of IT experience and potential solutions for rigorous OT needs, including real-time communications and cybersecurity traditional office solutions can’t provide. 

Common IT/OT objectives for securing a fully digitalized industrial enterprise

Identifying and authenticating all devices and machines within a system, manufacturing plant and in the field, to ensure only approved devices and systems are communicating with each other.

Encrypting all communications between the devices ensures privacy of the transmitted data and the integrity of the data generated from these systems.

Three ways to collaborate on industrial digitalization

Full end-to-end digitalization of industrial enterprises requires a comprehensive networking strategy developed by IT and OT teams working together. The industrial network must be designed as the strategic backbone of production systems, not as a component. It involves deployment industrial-grade networking technologies based on proven standards. Here are three ways companies can facilitate the needed collaborative process.

1. Bring all stakeholders to the table

All relevant stakeholders to the digitalization of a company’s industrial and enterprise operations must have a voice in building a consensus about which metrics are most critical to the organization and which metrics need improvement. They should focus on the unique requirements of production operations while managing risks of downtime and security. Together, they should consider these questions to identify key goals for success:

  • What critical assets are likely to fail, when and why?
  • How could an asset’s failure impact personnel, operations, or production costs and downtime?
  • How can data-driven decisions be integrated within the constraints of existing practices?
  • Which production operations are performing below standard in terms of quality output or in-process defect rates?
  • Where are large amounts of human intervention occurring to control quality that could be otherwise automated?

Where could data be used to monitor real-time performance to reduce variability in output quality?

2. Provide education on industrial networks

IT teams may need education in the real-time requirements of industrial OT networks and the issues with traditional IT security solutions. That’s why OT teams must share the principles, protocols and architectural details about how to operate, maintain, and troubleshoot existing and planned industrial networks, including:

  • Switching and routing
  • Wireless communications
  • Security requirements.

3. Find an experienced partner to facilitate first steps

Only an active IT/OT collaboration ― with a mutual understanding of each other’s respective roles and backgrounds ― can data flows be optimized over a company’s core network, the backbone of a fully digitalized industrial enterprise.

By understanding the full potential of modern industrial communications, IT and OT can work together to ensure more operational efficiency, visibility, flexibility and security in production. This can help companies fully realize the promise of digitalization to gain greater competitiveness and profitability in the short-term and for the long-term.

Michael Bingaman is director of vertical sales, Siemens Industry Inc. Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media,


Keywords: information technology, operations technology, IT/OT collaboration

Successful information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) convergence needs to rely on collaboration between the two sides.

IT concerns stemming from collaboration include asset availability and outdated technology.

OT concerns include risks to physical safety, quality control and data leaks.

Consider this

What is the biggest challenge for your company when it comes to IT/OT collaboration and convergence?

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Original content can be found at Control Engineering.




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