By Praveen Kumar Singh, Chief OPC Solutions Architect, Utthunga
The response of different industrial sectors to adopting Industry 4.0 is mixed. While the pandemic has accelerated i4.0 awareness among business entities of all sizes, the actual adoption on the ground level is not a straightforward exercise for many reasons.
Most industrial businesses deal with high-value products and raw materials. For example – in the Oil and Gas industry, the infrastructure required for oil extraction and processing involves considerable effort and cost. Hence, the primary goal is to optimize infrastructure and resource utilisation with minimum downtime. The ultimate objective of all activities at different layers of the plant is to maximize production by achieving the best possible uptime.
Organisations must have proper plans to embrace new technologies backed by reliable data and industry experts. Such preparedness and deliberate efforts ensure that technology and process transition happens in a phased manner, resulting in minimum plant downtime.
What is IT-OT Integration?
All advanced industry plants have two major components: physical assets and automated communication. These two components span various layers from the shop floor up to the cloud – connecting devices & equipment, controllers & monitors, networks & systems.
The term IT-OT integration sounds overwhelming and overemphasised (not wrongly, though) in the entire Industry 4.0 ecosystem. But one can’t deny that the IT-OT combination is THE nervous system of intelligent industries, without which we cannot imagine automation. While IT and OT are robust systems individually, their right combination drives innovation in every business sphere.
What is IT-OT integration?
More appropriately termed IT-OT convergence, IT-OT integration is the culmination of information technology (IT) and operational technologies (OT). While IT systems are more communication and data-centric, OT systems are the physical devices that act as the muscle power – handling the work and operations on the shop floor.
The next layer in the OT systems is real-time monitoring software. Such applications ensure that the physical devices deliver the best performance, reporting deviations from desired conditions upfront.
The IT-OT game is not only about the organisations’ structural change or over-indulgence in technologies. Establishing values, techniques, technologies, people, and processes at all levels is equally vital. Another term that can summarize IT-OT integration is ‘digital transformation.’
Common challenges involved in IT-OT integration, such as interoperability
IT-OT convergence is a paradigm shift that brings a myriad of challenges for beginners and as well as stalwarts. The first-timers find the planning exercise and process itself overwhelming. For those already in the IoT-IIoT game, designing and executing business complexities with continuous induction of new devices, specifications, and technologies in the existing process is another major challenge. For leaders, on the other hand, bringing next-level values with intelligent innovations continuously with rapidly changing technologies is a matter of survival. Nokia’s unfortunate failure in the past to keep up the pace is the best example in this category.
While integrating IT and OT systems appears easy, there is a massive sea of differences in how different departments in an organisation look at it. For example, the shop-floor workforce is primarily concerned about the efficient functioning and maintenance of the devices and equipment. On the other hand, the IT team is keen to connect the assets with software and network. To add, the operations team weighs business benefits from the possible collaboration of IT and OT.
Some of the most common IT-OT challenges for the industries are:
Department-specific Perspectives: Teams and individuals are busy combating routine tasks to achieve objectives and targets. In real-life industrial scenarios, initial collaboration ideas are perceived interventions from other teams, impacting their key deliverables.
Uncertainty and Lack of Clarity: Industry 4.0 is glorified engagement to many. Despite awareness about the benefits of IT-OT integration, the lack of understanding of decision-makers prevents them from taking a confident step.
Vast Inventory of Legacy Products: Most industrial sites have devices from different vendors based on changing and upcoming business requirements. Even the teams who initially worked on existing device deployments may not be available due to unforeseen reasons. Such a workforce vacuum creates complex situations for migrating legacy devices matching plans.
Every organisation, in principle, aspires to chart the tech journey of i4.0. However, the lack of vision and business clarity due to a complex setup already in place intimidates them to overcome several obstacles.
Lack of Expert Guidance: In various capacities, IoT and IIoT enablement calls for intensive efforts both in terms of business and technologies. Moreover, additional investments in new infrastructure, tools, and processes are perceived as dreadful.
Many other operational challenges like scalability, interoperability, remote operations, network & security, cloud compatibility, etc., slow down embracing IT-OT integration. To most of the challenges stated above, training, collaborations, use-case experiments, gradual adoption of technologies, and partnership-model can go a long way in a seamless transition to Industry 4.0 objectives.
Steps involved in a successful IT-OT integration strategy and key technologies involved
Companies adopt different IT-OT integration strategies based on their priorities, resources, and budget. However, there are a few common steps to implement effective IT-OT strategies.
Identifying the Need/s: The first step for any beginner in the i4.0 journey is recognizing the need for IT-OT collaboration. For large manufacturing companies, on the other hand, the condition may be automation and self-corrective processes based on live data from interconnected devices.
Setting Priorities: Combining IT-OT to meet end business objectives is an ongoing process. As companies progress and evolve to the next level, priorities take different shapes over a period.
The decision-makers must have complete clarity on short-term and long-term business objectives for adopting IT-OT maturity in terms of tools, technologies, and processes.
Identifying the Right i4.0 Partner: The IoT-IIoT landscape is quite vast. It is practically impossible for any organisation by itself to find the best solution covering all the immediate and future needs. Hence, it is crucial to identify the right industry partner who can be an advisor and a business consultant.
A U-turn from any lack of understanding or mistake in the journey of i4.0 can lead to hopeless situations.
Risk Mitigation Plans: Due to the longer implementation cycle and huge investments, having a plan-B may not be an excellent idea for successful IT-OT strategies. However, prudent industry knowledge and well-informed decisions based on current and future market trends can help minimize the impact of possible damages due to unpredictable or unforeseen circumstances.
Technology is the most significant stakeholder in the successful implementation of IT-OT integration. The most popular trends that are driving the current and future of Industry 4.0 are:
Smart Devices: Smart devices with a combination of hardware, software, and firmware can deliver the best performances. Live data processing and self-healing from possible threats or data adulteration due to internal or external factors.
Industrial Network: Advanced network and connectivity technologies such as Internet Connecting Sharing (ICS), Wireless Internet Connections (WIC), Low Power Wide Area Networks (PLWANS), Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), and Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), etc. are game changers in shrinking IT-OT gap across all levels of plant infrastructure.
Industrial Connectivity Protocols: Recently, a few trending IT-OT communication protocols like MQTT, OPC UA, I/O Link, IoT, and SCADA platforms are helping establish standard data structures based on open-source architecture. PLCs, Controllers, and Network Gateways are increasingly contributing to the industry’s complex requirements for IT-OT integration.
Edge Computing: Bringing computations and data storage closer to source data is one of the most talked about topics in the i4.0 landscape. The most prominent technologies in this sphere are Fog Computing, Cloudlets, Micro Data Center, and Multi Edge Computing (MEC).
Cyber Security: Due to humongous sensitive data available across various levels in plant infrastructure, securing data from leakages, influences, and tampering cannot be over-emphasised. The most important types of cyber technologies are Network Security, Information Security, Infrastructure Security, and End-user behavior.
How manufacturers can ensure scalability in IT-OT communication architecture
While the entire episode of glorifying IT-OT technology is quite interesting, the one factor that matters the most for now and for the future is – scalability.
The scalability of IT-OT communication architecture for industrial manufacturers will depend on three major factors: Field Assessment, Requirement Analysis, and Plant Design & Infrastructure. Moreover, the multi-geography factor will also play a significant role in deciding what matters most, keeping the immediate and future business objectives in view.
To name there are a few critical activities that will have a direct impact on the success of future-proof strategies for IT-OT integrations:
-Network Architecture Analysis & Preparation
-Security & Compliance Considerations
-Inter-plant and Multi-geo connectivity
-Failure Recovery Intelligence
-Analytics and Reporting
Technologies alone will not decide the success of IT-OT collaboration. Companies must realize that while most of the automation is by machines and systems, natural intelligence will remain in control of the skilled workforce. Timely and continuous investment in people, policies, and processes will underline the success of the bright future projected by IT-OT integration.
What the factories of the future will look like, and how is IT-OT integration likely to evolve
The future of intelligent factories has already begun. With valuable data from devices, machines, interconnected systems, and applications – the ultra-smart factories will have deep-rooted interconnectivity driven by AI, ML, Automation, and Remote Operation to achieve an efficient, effective, and safe production environment.
As Digital Transformation as the epicenter, the intelligent factories of the future will see human intervention more at the supervisory level, while most shop-floor activities are taken over by AI-powered co-bots – the Collaborative Robots.
The IT-OT integration of tomorrow will evolve to encompass three basic principles of automation – Connect, Collaborate, and challenge. The focus of IT-OT connectivity will be demand-driven to identify and adopt the most optimised approach to meet the desired objectives – almost instantaneously.