Once upon a time, operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) in the manufacturing industry were entirely separate functions. They were managed by different teams. They did not ‘touch’ one another.
OT referred to the technology used to run the operational side of manufacturing businesses – anything from the machines on the factory floor, to the hardware running packing and picking in the warehouse, to the fleets of vehicles carrying out delivery and logistics.
IT referred to the digital infrastructure which, in manufacturing businesses, might look very similar to that in many other sectors. It might incorporate accounting software, CRM systems, and so on.
But that distinct and discrete picture has changed, and it’s all about the transition to truly digital manufacturing and so-called Industry 4.0 – the fourth major revolution in the manufacturing industry.
Data collected by OT – usually in the form of IoT-enabled sensors and devices – can be analysed en masse by IT analytics platforms and transformed into tangible business insights for more informed, intelligent decision-making. IT and OT can learn from each other, driving greater innovation and creativity, more efficient processes, and a more competitive position in the marketplace.
Cisco is one of the great pioneers in IT/OR convergence. Here are four of the main areas in which its approach to IT/OT convergence is enabling digital transformation in the manufacturing industry:
The faster and better-informed decision-making within manufacturing environments, the greater the opportunities for process efficiency combined with creative innovation. Fog computing – an architecture which uses edge devices to carry out a large amount of computation, storage and communication – can offer this. It enables decisions to be made more closely to the things actually producing and acting on the data informing those decisions – like SCADA systems within manufacturing plants. Essentially, a triage system can be developed for data. The most time-critical information is analysed on the fog architecture, very close to where it is to be harnessed. Data that is slightly less time-sensitive – perhaps it needs to acted on in seconds or minutes – can be passed to an intermediary mode. Only the data which is used for medium and longer-term decision-making is passed to the cloud.
In manufacturing plants, wireless communications can unlock powerful new modes of collaboration and creativity. But until relatively recently, it was very difficult to implement them on factory floors. Now, with far greater resilience and robustness in wireless communications, that dream is becoming a reality.
Downtime is to be avoided in any business, but the manufacturing sector can be particularly sensitive to it. Pauses or shutdowns on the production lines can have a truly enormous business impact, with a hefty lag before normal operations can be resumed. Avoiding this depends on being able to keep every piece of equipment on the production line operating at peak performance, whilst scheduling maintenance and repairs at the least disruptive time. IT/OT convergence enables this by actively monitoring the performance and condition of key equipment and scheduling procedures at the most appropriate time.
One challenging aspect of IT/OT convergence is the fact that it makes the operational technology part of the organisation’s overall cybersecurity posture. When OT existed in its own silo, unconnected to the outside world, it was relatively safe from outside interference. The introduction of IIoT sensors, connected machines, and greater convergence with IT means, however, that OT needs to come under the scope of the security team. Here, then, IT/OT convergence is as much about collaboration and interaction between personnel as it is about implementing the right security tools and processes.
MLR Networks is proud to be a specialist in Cisco technology. For advice on how we can enable IT/OT convergence in your manufacturing business, get in touch with us today.