IT

How IT/OT convergence starts with understanding

Converging information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) is challenging, but a deep OT dive can help both sides learn a lot about their respective networks and create understanding.

By Matt Ruth June 12, 2021
Image courtesy: Brett Sayles

IT/OT convergence isn’t just a concept, a catchy mnemonic, nor a convenient abbreviation jumble  It’s a very real and significant challenge facing manufacturers. At the crux of the issue is how information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) have historically approached the planning, structure and governance associated with their respective technology layers.

In general, manufacturers over the past three decades have allocated the resources and funding towards IT strategies that promote and enforce standardization, governance, and security through a clear structure for development, rollout, and support. Conversely, generally speaking, manufacturers drive their respective engineering and operations (i.e. OT) to ensure production is consistent and of the highest quality.  This focus has created amazing “product standardization,” but it has unintended consequences. One consequence is as OT innovates and controls product costs, there are many different OT technologies from plant to plant, machine to machine and line to line.

How to converge IT, OT

As manufacturers converge IT and OT, a key obstacle is identifying, assessing and planning for the support, maintenance, and IT normalization of the large variety of critical production IT and OT applications. In many circumstances, these processes and applications were developed organically over time. IT is facing a hard reality; absorbing decades worth of technology structure associated with business side of an organization. To minimize risk and share knowledge, a deep OT dive focusing on the current state of affairs is the best approach for IT to begin supporting OT.

Through these efforts, it’s increasingly interesting for us to understand how different companies delegate tasks and utilize a variety of software to run their manufacturing operation. Every company organizes their talent a little differently by delegating specific roles to each employee. But, so much of how a company operates their manufacturing systems is dependent on their size, maturity, and what technologies and software they use. To the manufacturing novice, you may expect companies to have an efficient and easy process to perform every operation and solve every problem, but in reality, that is not the case. Every manufacturer is an OT snowflake in some respect. By assessing a manufacturer’s OT systems, we take the time to analyze, learn, understand, and recommend solutions to improve their processes.

The goal of the assessment, and subsequent recommendations, is providing a company with the best possible structure for first understanding their OT topology. It will help set the company on a path for technology support and sustainability. To do that, first we need to understand how they work, their IT workflow process, and their unique software systems. This includes learning the background, system architecture, design methods and the entire process flow of the area under assessment. After a comprehensive understanding, we can investigate, from an informed outsiders’ point of view, where their problems are, which areas are fragile and risky and which need more attention. From this we can develop a report that captures why these inefficiencies and issues are happening.

The outcome of the assessment is a roadmap of improvement opportunities and structure for support. It typically dictates a variety of solutions to address the struggles of troubleshooting and maintaining the plant systems. It’s often as simple as augmenting with additional resources to ensure day-to-day tasks and challenges go without any hiccups. Removing and eradicating the known (but often not addressed) software bugs and improving their automation tools is a priority. If the identified challenges don’t focus on things that require pure technology assistance, an operational training or maintenance assistance program is developed.

Because each manufacturer is unique, it multiplies the possible paths of IT and OT convergence. Some of those paths are riddled with landmines of “too many assumptions.” The most common assumption that systems in the OT layer are very similar to the IT space can (and will) come back to haunt you. A key best practice to help manufacturing companies to address that risk is to add extra set(s) of expert eyes to; first, identify the needs and challenges and second, set structure to manage them going forward as IT and OT assimilate.

As with many of life’s challenges, it’s always best to “seek first to understand” before speaking and heading down an unsure path. IT/OT convergence is no different.

Matt Ruth is president of Avanceon, a CFE Media content partner. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


Matt Ruth
Author Bio: Matt Ruth is president of Avanceon.