Increasing cost pressures are forcing companies to use scarce resources more efficiently than ever. At the same time, computing power is becoming stronger, which makes access to Big Data (large data sets that can be analyzed using computers to reveal patterns and trends) easier and less expensive. This perfect storm of needing to get more bang for the buck as more mission-critical quantitative information becomes available necessitates that Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) function in coordination with one another rather than in silos. Convergence, the term used to describe this seamless integration of IT and OT, is essential to the success of manufacturers of all sizes.
IT, or the creation, management, storage and processing of information through software, digital networks and hardware to help a company meet its strategic and tactical goals, has been a business function for decades. IT’s much younger companion, OT, uses hardware, sensors, actuators, controllers and software to control and monitor processes on industrial machinery and power grids, transportation systems and other kinds of infrastructure to manufacture products or provide essential public services.
While IT focuses on a company’s front-end information-related activities and supports organization-wide data flow, OT centers on back-end production done by machines. OT encompasses functions such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA), industrial control systems (ICS), process automation, real-time monitoring and ensuring the reliability and security of operational systems.
The ability of IT and OT to work harmoniously is possible through Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), a key technology element of Industry 4.0. This Fourth Industrial Revolution began a decade ago and has accelerated over the past five years. It is characterized by the interconnectivity and smart automation of manufacturing operations.
On the production floor, interconnected sensors, instruments and other devices are networked together to help manufacturers optimize productivity, often by managing Big Data to reveal information that results in well-reasoned operational decisions on the production floor and strategic ones made by company leadership.
Why Convergence is a “Must Have”
Convergence is necessary to improve efficiency, reduce errors, decrease costs, enhance workflows and gain competitive advantage. Convergence can also improve cybersecurity by protecting computer networks and production equipment alike from external attacks and reduce the probability of costly downtime occurring in any facet of a company’s operations.
In a manufacturing environment, the convergence of IT and OT allows a company to be more efficient by using complete sales and inventory data to make demand-based decisions. Those choices mainly relate to equipment optimization and maintenance and energy consumption.
As for best practices to achieve convergence, it is ideal to start by evaluating current IT/OT infrastructure and spending. That process includes identifying current or future uses of digital technology and establish priorities based on their potential abilities to increase the bottom line most significantly. Depending upon company size, evaluation is a process that can take weeks or months.
Generally, for a convergence initiative to achieve best results, it is best to obtain assistance from experienced professionals who specialize in leading companies like yours through transitions that enable you to “do it right the first time.” Those outside individuals or teams should help you increase collaboration between your internal IT and OT teams.
A significant percentage of that work scope would likely consist of upgrading legacy OT systems to have security features equal to those of your IT systems that you are presumably upgrading or replacing every five years. Those convergence specialists should also help you develop custom protocols for IT and OT equipment and systems to interface regardless of the changes you implement in your production or business management systems following initial implementation.
An effective convergence team can also help you with these activities which are difficult or impossible to perform without assistance: 1) Communicate goals team-wide and to top and senior management; 2) Develop a plan for IT and OT systems management and security solutions to function seamlessly; 3) Define internal team members’ roles and responsibilities; 4) Outline or prescribe opportunities for ongoing collaboration; 5) Provide cross-training so IT and OT groups know what it takes to succeed by working together; and 6) Use the right tools for configuration, management and security.
Although convergence can require a significant allocation of resources, the cost of inaction can be higher as the ability to use Big Data to competitive advantage will increasingly become a significant factor in differentiating successful manufacturers from struggling ones. Manufacturers who choose to make convergence of IT and OT systems a standard business practice like regulatory compliance, worker safety training and quality management will have a brighter future than those who resist change.
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