The role of the system integrator in the digital transformation
Manufacturing automation is embracing digital transformation and the system integration plays a key role in facilitating it and integrating information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT).
Manufacturing automation is seeing a shift from controls type projects to information solution, or digital transformation-type projects. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) supports this digital transformation and falls under its umbrella. John Cunningham, director of business and industrial IT, RoviSys discusses the role of the system integrator in the digital transformation, safe remote access, better bandwidth and resiliency in manufacturing. RoviSys is among CFE Media and Technology’s 2021 System Integrator Giants.
CFE Media: How has COVID-19 and remote monitoring and/or remote automation applied to the way you engage with customers? How has the pandemic changed the way you approach remote access/remote monitoring?
John Cunningham: We are finding that the pandemic is accelerating a move toward more remote access that was already in movement before the pandemic began. Customers are being forced into more remote access as corporate policies are limiting the number of outsiders into plants, and even how close employees can physically be to each other within the plant. They are also evaluating — in some cases moving more quickly to digitalize — systems that had limited or no remote access previously.
Customers with a strong information technology-operational technology (IT-OT) internal connection are more methodical about this process than smaller companies or those who have not previously connected their IT and OT groups. With those companies more mature with this approach, we are often integrated into existing infrastructure, using secure access to the customer’s virtual private network (VPN) or even being issued customer-supplied engineering tools (computers) for remote access.
For customers who are new to working remotely, we are helping them see the need for secure remote access and helping to define how that access can be used and what can be done remotely. This includes not only the technology, but also the policies and governance model for scalability.
We are also working closely with our customers to have them assign plant personnel to serve as “boots on the ground” for the work that must be done onsite. We engage in training and frequent meetings with the site personnel to get them comfortable with the new roll and to assure that they understand what needs to be done and how to do it. This process is working best when customer leadership commits to this model.
We are anticipating the new normal after the pandemic will continue to include more remote access than previously. Reduced travel time and expenses, as well as greater engagement of site personnel are seen as benefits that customers want to maintain.
CFE Media: How do you provide asset visibility, real-time health monitoring while ensuring access and cybersecurity?
Cunningham: The need for remote access, along with the ongoing flood of security breaches, have made OT security a top priority for many of our customers. We stress the need for OT security for all customers, but especially those who are expanding their remote horizon. We often find customers who had ad-hoc, insecure remote access previously. The current focus has raised the need for security, and customers are more frequently paying attention to limiting and securing access.
We generally try to work with the customer’s IT team to see if they have already addressed remote access and monitoring on the enterprise side of the business. If so, we will work to integrate with the tools currently in place and where practical, extend their use into the OT space. We partner with several companies that offer excellent tools that extend visibility and health monitoring. Many of our customers have legacy systems that do not lend themselves to remote monitoring and accessibility. In these cases, we work closely with the customer to determine their comfort level and budget to extend visibility. Many of these customers choose not to make the necessary changes and look to return to business as usual as soon as they can.
We are finding that the key to successful, secure remote access is tight coordination between the IT, OT and information security groups. Without the buy-in and support of all three of these groups, solutions are prone to haphazard implementation and limited supportability and scalability. We work closely with all three groups for the strategy, design, implementation and support of the security-conscious infrastructure. In these cases, we are finding that the infrastructure and security elements are becoming integrated into the manufacturing site and are valued as highly as the controls and information systems they are protecting.
CFE Media: How can system integrators support asset visibility, real-time health monitoring and cybersecurity?
Cunningham: SIs should serve as the experts for these solutions and often need to act as the liaison between the customer’s IT, OT and information security teams. SIs should remain independent of any particular product or technology, working with what the customer may already have in place if it is an appropriate solution.
SIs should focus on the “insurance” nature of these solutions and on the return on investment (ROI) associated with them.
SIs should be able to support the needs of all three groups (IT, OT and InfoSec). They should be able to develop the strategy for the solutions, design them, implement them and support them. SIs should ideally be able to help the customer develop and maintain policies and governance models for the ever-changing environment into which the solutions are to be deployed.
SIs also should be a primary resource for adoption of the new solutions in the manufacturing environment. The operations team will often have limited or no experience with the new solutions and may initially resist the changes. Adoption includes early engagement of site stakeholders, keeping them informed along the journey, training in new systems and technologies and helping them see how their involvement is essential to the acceptance and value of the solutions.
CFE Media: In your opinion, what is the role of the system integrator in digital transformation?
Cunningham: This question was partly answered in the question above about how SIs can support the new solutions. A few other thoughts about the role of the SI in digital transformation include:
- Engage as early as possible with the customer to understand the thought process and purpose of a digital transformation initiative
- Understand what the customer needs are; what is the customer strategy? Who is driving digital transformation on the customer end? What is the end goal of the digital transformation initiative?
- Help facilitate discussions that span the customer’s organization to develop a functional strategy for digital transformation implementation
- Help the customer understand and be driven by ROI
- Be the expert; provide support at all phases of the digital transformation journey
- Be independent of any particular product or technology; focus on the issues the customer is trying to address and let the technologies follow from there
- Avoid digital transformation for its own sake; customers can become enamored with digital transformation without thinking through what it means for them, what the cost will be and what cultural changes will need to take place for success
- Act first as trusted partner, then as a vendor.
Jack Smith is a CFE Media and Technology content manager, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Keywords: Applying automation, system integrators, IT/OT integration
Understand how system integrators support asset visibility, real-time health monitoring and cybersecurity.
Examine how COVID-19 and remote monitoring and/or remote automation has changed system integrator interactions with customers.
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