Manufacturing organizations need a succession plan

Engineering and IT insight for career succession planning: Manufacturing companies need to have more than one engineer who can bridge the gap between automation and information technology (IT) to keep things moving smoothly in case that one engineer departs.

By Dennis Brandl April 27, 2016

Everything seemed to have been going well recently for a manufacturer. The information technology (IT) department and the automation department had an agreement on the separation of responsibilities. Where there was overlap, usually in network management, databases, and account management, the impacted group communicated and coordinated any changes with the other group. Systems that affected both the business networks and the operations networks were clearly identified, and there was an understanding of each group’s roles and responsibilities.

However, problems began when a key automation engineer left the company. This engineer also functioned as the automation department’s operations technology (OT) specialist, which left a big responsibility hole. Unfortunately, many automation engineers believe that all the software technology they need to know is programmable logic controller (PLC) ladder logic programming. It is rare for an automation engineer to have information technology knowledge and training. In this case, the company had only one engineer who fit this description.

Bridge between IT, automation

Young automation engineers are more likely to have recent IT knowledge, and this was the case for the key engineer. When the engineer left, the real reason that the input/output (IO) and automation departments had worked so well together also left.

Over the first few months, everything seemed to be running smoothly, but small problems started popping up. The IT group would make a change that impacted production, or the automation group couldn’t access systems they needed to update.

The problems became more frequent and longer to fix as time went on. Eventually, an unexpected major IT change occurred that stopped production at the site, which cost millions of dollars. Also, the automation department’s projects started to have major delays due to an inability to get the proper IT resources assigned. The result was an antagonistic relationship between the IT and the automation departments that caused even more delays and production losses. 

OT succession planning

The underlying cause of the problem was the lack of a succession plan for an "IT-aware" automation engineer. The lost engineer had been involved because of personal interest, not because of a formal plan. The automation department manager encouraged the interaction and knew that it kept everything going smoothly. With no succession plan in place, there was no one who could maintain the inter-departmental communication and coordination. No one in the automation department "spoke the language" of IT, and IT didn’t speak the language of automation.

This could happen at other sites if a company relies exclusively on one person as the OT specialist. Preventing the problem requires that companies develop, implement, manage, and monitor OT expertise succession plans. OT experts do not need to know everything an IT expert knows because they have different roles. An IT expert can focus on one technology and become a master of that area. An OT expert has to have general knowledge of multiple technologies. The technologies include databases, networks, account management, virtual machines, security, and scripting languages. An OT expert should be able to design and normalize a structured query language (SQL) database, draw and size a network architecture, add and modify user accounts, setup and manage virtual machines, have the authority and knowledge to patch industrial systems, and write and debug installation and update scripts. This knowledge base is a far cry from the generally accepted expertise of an automation engineer, but it is what is needed in today’s technology-rich manufacturing environment.

Define OT roles, understudies

With any luck, a company has someone with this knowledge and interest. If so, this person should have a formally defined role and defined responsibilities. The company should also assign understudies and have a succession plan in place with the OT expert mentoring his or her understudies. Management’s responsibilities are to ensure that people are assigned the proper roles and that they are given the time and opportunities to learn and grow their knowledge of relevant information technologies. The understudy’s responsibility is to be ready to take over when needed. This could be for short period or as a full-time replacement. No major theatrical group would go into production without understudies to take over key roles. No theater understudies are "not ready" to take over. A manufacturing organization should be no less prepared for the unexpected.

Dennis Brandl is president of BR&L Consulting in Cary, N.C., His firm focuses on manufacturing IT. Contact him at Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

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