Highlights from a recent Schneider Electric-hosted panel discussion titled, “The Worlds of IT and OT Have Converged: A Call for Leadership and Innovation”, contributed to this article. A video of this discussion can be viewed at The Worlds of IT and OT Have Converged.
The convergence of information technology and operations technology (IT/OT convergence) is progressing rapidly as industrial organizations realize it is key for successful digital transformation. Connectivity and/or convergence between OT and IT is essential for businesses to compete. Manufacturers and other industrial organizations today face the increasing demand for tighter integration and more information. In response, they have started to leverage Industrial IoT and Industry 4.0 technology and approaches including 5G networking, cloud and edge computing, additive manufacturing, advanced analytics, digital twins, AR/VR, AI, ML, and other emerging technologies. Convergence between IT and OT also provides an integrated, digitalized approach that increases interoperability and flexibility, reduces CAPEX and OPEX expenditures, increases production efficiencies, decreases unscheduled downtime, and improves overall profitability. Rather than a trend, ARC Advisory Group believes that this convergence between IT and OT will become permanent, representing a true technology fusion.
None of the industry challenges that are addressed via Industry 4.0, digital transformation and smart technologies can be deployed without the convergence of IT and OT. This convergence has led to a rapid learning curve for both IT and OT groups. Within plants, IT/OT convergence has meant that IT personnel often have to learn what terms such as “real time,” “non-stop,” and “deterministic” mean in the operations context, and OT personnel are rapidly discovering the advantages of leveraging the latest IT-based approaches. This convergence is helping these plants address legacy automation assets that often need IIoT technology to be connected to the cloud or to act as edge devices, often by the addition of smart embedded devices to the asset. This IT/OT convergence trend increases the need for tighter integration and more information and analytics from all manufacturing assets, including legacy automation systems. It also contributes to the adoption of cloud computing and big data applications, which in turn drive the need for high-availability systems to help eliminate unscheduled downtime.
IT/OT convergence is one of the enablers of edge control, which is a converged control architecture that gives manufacturers the critical capability to manage their assets on premise as well as from the cloud, depending on their needs. This includes connected control platforms with remote access, advanced automation, and operator override capabilities. Local control and firewall protection for cybersecurity are also available to maximize the benefits, especially for mission-critical applications. Edge control applications can be deployed in manufacturing for power monitoring, machine automation, and process automation systems that provide monitoring, control, and safety management.
IT/OT convergence and digital transformation are bringing OT personnel into the world of IT. However, the challenge is how can IT data be made accessible to OT personnel that do not have an IT or data science background and do not possess programming skills in Python, R, C++, etc. This has led to data democratization, which is the process of making this IT data accessible to the average non-IT user without having to involve the IT department. Today, industrial companies are borrowing IT approaches and architectures developed for enterprise systems with a focus on speed and scale. These next generation of solutions employ tools to help assist OT personnel in accessing the data they seek to solve problems without retraining or adding data science capabilities to industrial organizations.
So in summary, benefits of an IT/OT converged system includes reduced process variability and improved quality which results in production improvements, such as fewer process upsets and fewer production reruns which minimizes waste, more efficient raw material usage as well as a more reliable supply chain, and lower energy consumption and costs, all of which helps to improve overall stakeholder expectations and value. Manufacturers deploying a converged IT/OT infrastructure can reduce both technical and business risks by providing solutions that are readily maintainable by plant operations and maintenance personnel. IT/OT infrastructure enables a very reliable integration of disparate equipment and system information for end-to-end production visibility and traceability, along with automated data collection for efficiency and analysis. A flexible and robust IT/OT infrastructure is also the easiest path to address both existing application needs, as well as achieving IIoT and digital transformation initiatives. A modern IT/OT infrastructure is essential to help companies address their manufacturing challenges and make a positive impact to their productivity and profitability.