23 Mar Practical Approaches to IT/OT Convergence
I say, it’s time to tear down the wall! Let’s make IT/OT convergence a reality. The IT/OT divide has been there since the dawn of computers in industry. (And I should know, I have been researching manufacturing solutions since then myself).
It’s appropriate that this all has a German flavor. Tearing down the Berlin wall created a new era for Germany. The wall between operational technology (OT) engineers and information technology (IT) is equally polarizing and problematic for a manufacturing facility. And those seeking to achieve the originally-German vision of Industry 4.0 must tear down their IT/OT wall.
Why tear down the wall? Because IT and OT each manage different aspects of a plant’s functioning. Industry 4.0 particularly leverages cyber-physical systems in which products and equipment inherently carry needed information about themselves. Equipment data is the domain of OT, and it becomes far more valuable when it goes into an IT environment for context and analysis. Only with IT and OT working in harmony can a plant achieve optimal performance.
Organizational IT/OT Walls
It’s also appropriate that this harks back to an American calling on a Russian leader to do that work in Germany. Manufacturers have been calling on their solution providers to help them create a new reality. But in fact, the Berlin Wall came down from the efforts of locals. Similarly, the OT and IT professionals need to make this happen themselves.
Some manufacturers have been conscious of this divide. The differences in mindset, education and objectives are dramatic and can cause challenges in creating architectures and practices to enable smooth data flow. When I researched this back in 2007, we discovered that the companies who had taken more steps toward IT/OT convergence found the benefits to be:
- increased team efficiency and performance
- better service or shorter project timelines
- better business continuity, reliability and security
- coherence and a central answer to key questions
Convergence sometimes means that IT and OT are one organization in the company structure, or groups that report to one manager. This is not always the approach that works. In some cases, having a liaison person or group can work. In others, companies simply structure processes, projects, and teams consciously to ensure the IT and OT teams work together toward success.
IT/OT Technology Support
Organizational strategies are only part of it. While people are central, today there are more and more technologies that support IT/OT convergence. There are several key aspects of how technology can support IT/OT convergence, and the resultant benefits:
- Gathering data consistently and pervasively
- Putting IT and OT data into a single operations context
- Consistent access or “single view of truth” for collaboration among disciplines
- Plant performance views based on blended IT and OT data (plus other data streams)
Let’s examine the key technologies that can support each of those aspects:
No doubt you guessed that Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is one key to gathering data consistently and pervasively. The thing to remember here is that you may not always need to add IoT for data output on production lines and equipment. For most plants, there is some automation that will offer up data if you can connect to it. An equipment or automation layer that’s designed to handle IoT plus all protocols, legacy and modern, can handle this need.
IT and OT Data in Context
Putting IT and OT data into a single operations context is no small feat. This is part of the concept of a digital twin, or a virtual model that mirrors the real world. But again, it may not require an entirely new solution. Some plants have data historians that put at least OT data in time-series format. For many plants, their manufacturing execution system (MES) tracks the materials, processes, and personnel. This rich context for IT and OT data in manufacturing has been delivering value for years.
The concept of digital thread tying all data together is powerful. MES is a possible way to gain consistent access to much of the IT and OT data. Modern systems not only have the data, but applications including quality, scheduling, materials management and maintenance. MES is typically also integrated with ERP, PLM and other enterprise systems. Those without MES or with an older system may need to build an additional data layer to accomplish what is native in today’s MES.
Plant performance views based on blended IT and OT data (plus other data streams) is widely available in a dashboard or intelligence application that can be inside or alongside the MES. Today, this functionality may be called business intelligence, manufacturing intelligence or digital twin. While a digital twin of the plant may sound and be daunting, if you build it from equipment twins, it’s not always. Some modern MES and related systems can deliver this real-time comprehensive visibility of plant status and performance.
Unlike the situation in 2007, these technologies are readily available and increasingly effectively integrated.
The Path to IT/OT Convergence
For any company, IT/OT Convergence is a journey. Your path will vary based on your industry, challenges, team and progress to date. And yet, there are some common themes.
For any major project, there should be goals in mind—what you hope to achieve by bringing new technologies and practices into your company.
Here are some practical questions to ask to explore your path toward greater IT/OT convergence.
- Why converge IT and OT? What are the major benefits we aim to gain?
- What has worked so far in bringing IT and OT together? How can we build on our successes?
- Have the IT and OT teams spent time educating each other not just on “what we do and how,” but also on “WHY we do things as we do.”
- Are there organizational or project structure steps we can put into place toward this?
- Are there policies, procedures or incentives that must change for IT and OT to converge?
- Do we have ways to gather the IT and OT data we need that everyone can agree work?
- If not, who needs to come together to create a standard structure for this?
- If so, are there areas where we might expand or improve it?
- Is our data in context? Do we have historian, MES, and other data? Are we making progress toward a digital twin of our operation?
- Do we have a consistent home for both IT and OT data that all teams can readily access and use?
- Can everyone see the current plant status and performance who needs to know?
- Is this visibility fast enough to serve all the purposes we need it to serve?
- Does each role have visibility in the proper scope and granularity to act on it quickly?
- Is there cross-functional IT and OT data to ensure quality, timeliness, and cost-effective operations?
- Are variety and complexity in our systems and standards limiting convergence? Where can we standardize more?
- Do we have processes in place for initiatives, projects, and continuous improvement that bring IT and OT together regularly?
The idea is to let IT and OT people, projects and data flow to facilitate your digital transformation. This requires not just thinking pragmatically, but also collaborating, analyzing and acting in harmony.
What have you done lately to tear down the IT/OT wall?