IT/OT alignment on the factory floor: Tips for a smooth transition

Author: Poornima Apte

In traditional manufacturing, the factory is divided by the systems that govern its parts. Operational technology (OT) rules the plant floor while information technology (IT) runs the business. And while there are benefits to having IT systems like enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM) systems integrated with OT systems like manufacturing execution systems (MES) or warehouse management systems (WMS), the IT/OT environments, for the most part, continue to be kept separated. 

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a key driver of the Fourth Industrial Revolution—Industry 4.0—and its advent is leading to calls for increased IT/OT alignment. When IT and OT network infrastructure is converged, manufacturers not only realize cost efficiencies from single circuits with logical separation, but can achieve Industry 4.0 outcomes when this infrastructure is advanced, like SDN or 5G. Such a network can prioritize and micro segment traffic, prioritize critical applications, bring IT and OT applications to the shop floor’s edge to enable  intelligent applications like predictive maintenance, robotics, cobots, and more

Bridging IT and OT efficiently and effectively is critical to continued success—but it doesn't come without difficulties..

IT/OT alignment challenges

Unlocking Industry 4.0 applications with IT/OT convergence can face challenges, which can include:

  • Culture leading to rigid silos
    Too often, IT and OT are siloed departments that don't share processes. When most manufacturers make their network plans for factories, OT focuses on uptime , reliability and security. IT focuses on bandwidth and privacy. Seldom do they plan together. So the existing and legacy infrastructure that’s in most factories today does not enable easy integration of thermal imaging or any sort of machine/camera vision, not to mention wireless robotics such as automated guided vehicles. 
  • Infrastructure
    Legacy network infrastructure hindering advanced applications that may require increased bandwidth, low latency, critical application prioritization, etc.
  • Systems Integration
    Many questions face executives as they face the options in front of them: How to decide on architecture? Do you keep the Purdue Model of Control Hierarchy or find a way to collapse it? Should you use your OEM or local SI for integration support?
  • Data security and outages
    The sheer volume of IIoT data and its endpoints makes that data more vulnerable to hacking. Cybersecurity and outages continue to be stumbling blocks for aligning IT and OT.
  • Upfront costs
    The early stages of IT/OT integration will be a heavy lift, and manufacturers will need to project their ROI before moving forward.

IT/OT alignment solutions

Achieving business intelligence through IT/OT alignment in a smart factory is a balancing act. People, processes and technology must work in tandem to lead and support one another.

True alignment of IT and OT requires rebooting the company mindset, and it starts with management. Consider increasing knowledge-sharing and cross-training between the OT and IT departments, with a dedicated advocate for each. This advocate should be expected to maintain the inter-department relationship and take the lead on upskilling and reskilling the appropriate team members. This can lead to a better understanding of the other's processes and pain points. 

Management should also acknowledge the need for workforce alignment at every level. Employee engagement is critical to success; employees might need to be cross-trained  in new tech and systems.

To effectively integrate IT and OT, you need to establish KPIs that make sense for the organization. For example, objectives need to be established for production efficiencies that result from just-in-time manufacturing, if manufacturing execution and enterprise resource planning systems (MES and ERP) are integrated. 

There are also cost benefits that are associated with IT/OT alignment that need to be measured. If the network has application prioritization capabilities made possible by software defined networking or 5G network slicing, there may be safety and reliability efficiencies to be gained.

Aligning IT and OT leads to integrated data from all assets on one central platform. Such a holistic look at processes can deliver new avenues for revenue or savings if you know where to look. Even gathering IIoT data after products are sold can deliver crucial intelligence that vendors might find useful. Knowing when an HVAC unit is about to fail, for example, means that technicians can repair or replace it before it impedes production, and give finance an opportunity to budget for it appropriately. Furthermore, OEMs can benefit financially by leveraging remote monitoring to maintain and service equipment before there are systems failures.  

Likewise, effective communication and automation between inventory and sales can simplify their day-to-day processes. Having real time visibility across a manufacturer’s supply chain and their supplier’s/vendors supply chains, could prevent disruptions stemming from global pandemics, socio and geopolitical conflicts, weather, etc.

These are just a few examples that illustrate the impact a convergence of applications (such as MES, ERP, CRM, Cloud, WMS, and more) will have and what will ultimately deliver Industry 4.0 outcomes.

In order to achieve positive Industry 4.0 outcomes and unleash innovation from the shop floor to the corner office, IT and OT require advanced infrastructure that’s application-aware, reliable, secure and agile. Being able to adapt the key attributes of advanced networking - availability, uptime, scalability, latency, etc. - and match them with the business and operational needs is paramount to executing on Industry 4.0 use cases.

Take PdM (predictive maintenance) as an example. PdM uses equipment and machinery data to evaluate asset performance in real time and by predicting breakdowns, minimizes costly downtime. This critical application needs to be treated with a different priority than other applications to ensure optimal performance. Whether it’s QoS, bandwidth, latency or micro-segmentation to defend from cyber attacks, advanced infrastructure architecturally underpins the most critical of OT and the most sensitive of IT applications.

IT/OT convergence begins with people, culture and process, and it always ends with technology. And when that technology is underpinned by advanced networking like SDN and soon 5G, IIoT architectures and machine-to-cloud security to name a few, those Industry 4.0 outcomes will finally become reality. 

Learn more about connecting the physical and digital worlds in manufacturing.