Do people, places and profit hold the key?

Engineers and academics have been extolling the benefits of IT and OT convergence as far back as the early Eighties, but many businesses are still reluctant to adopt platforms that combine the two. Here, Martyn Williams, managing director of industrial software providerCOPA-DATA UK, explains the advantages of IT and OT convergence.

In a 1982 paper published by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the authors proposed a new control system architecture for use in an Automated Manufacturing Research Facility (AMRF).

In a diagram reminiscent of a castle, the shapes that make up the control system appear to create two fortified tower-like structures joined by a flat wall-like section in the centre. The tower on the right depicts a hierarchical database that contains the control programs that define how to manufacture parts — think of this as the operational technology (OT) of today.

The tower on the left makes up the hierarchical database that contains the management information system and data on the state of the parts — think of this as information technology (IT). Finally, the wall in the middle is made up of I/O lines and feedback control loops connected to boxes that represent robotic workstations and machine tools.

While these structures were symptomatic of their time, they have historically separated IT and OT teams both figuratively and literally, with staff often working in different departments or even different facilities. In contrast, today’s control architectures have broken down the rigid structures, replacing them with highly integrated and free-flowing systems that are flexible and easy to change based on business needs.

Advantage one: Profit

Whether you call it digital transformation, the Internet of Things (IoT) or Industry 4.0, the primary driver for businesses seeking automation improvements is to bolster the bottom line. At a time when political uncertainty is driving up the cost of doing business, many organisations are looking inward, searching for those all-important marginal gains.

The convergence of IT and OT not only benefits from the resource sharing of connected devices, but it also promises to boost productivity. Better scheduling, production planning, material allocation, product tracking and real-time access to process data are quick and easy with the two realms working in sync.

However, without an effective digital platform running at the heart of the system, businesses will continue to face issues with complexity, compatibility and cost.

This is why COPA-DATA developed zenon, a manufacturing and automation software platform that provides a single, integrated environment, combining data recording, machine operation and business intelligence. Using zenon, manufacturers can eliminate the redundancy and cost associated with running two separate overlapping IT and OT systems, delivering better performance and productivity.

Advantage two: People

The second major benefit of combining IT and OT is to allow staff on both sides to overcome their differences. Cybersecurity, decision-making, scalability and downtime are just some areas that can put IT and OT staff at odds with each other.

Take downtime, for example. In mission critical applications such as food and beverage production, where unexpected downtime could result in spoiled produce, OT staff may be responsible for getting the line back up and running as quickly as possible. IT staff, on the other hand, may be responsible for ensuring data integrity for traceability purposes and will therefore prioritise this task.

In this situation, a software platform such as zenon can help IT and OT staff collectively solve their problems. zenon’s network technology features seamless and circular redundancy and high availability, so that downtime is eliminated. For engineers, it also offers post-event fault analysis and allows operators to reload modified functions without having to restart the system. Similarly, data archiving allows IT staff to immediately retrieve and store traceability data.

Advantage three: Place

Business theory dictates that if you want to make it difficult for your competitors to enter your market, you need to put up barriers to entry. This includes technological, regulatory or economical hurdles that you’ve spent years overcoming, and ones that make it unattractive for new entrants to replicate.

But what if these same hurdles prevent you growing as a business? This is often the case in “places” such as sugar refining, dairy processing, and pharmaceutical manufacturing. Businesses in these industry sectors have spent decades developing finely tuned proprietary processes that are not only difficult to automate, they’re difficult to scale.

Take sugar refining for example. Because the harvesting window for sugar cane is so narrow — typically three months from December to March — manufacturers are under pressure to ensure that they can quickly setup the plant for seasonal production. What’s more, the process of turning raw sugar cane into the processed sugar we’re familiar with is a complex one. This involves many steps including shredding, milling, juice extraction, clarification, evaporation, syrup production, crystallisation, centrifugation, drying and packaging.

All these processes need to be carefully co-ordinated as any downtime can be critical to the success of the final product. If the refining process doesn’t align perfectly with the harvesting window manufacturers may suffer from perished crops and lost revenue.

Here, the integration of IT and OT is essential in democratising automation, levelling the playing field and facilitating business growth. To allow customers to achieve this, we’ve ensured zenon supports open standards such as OPC UA, as well as being built with over 300 open interfaces and native drivers. The platform runs on common industrial clients and operating systems and offers visualisation using standard HTML5 web technology.

Take advantage now

As the industry breaks down the rigid barriers of traditional engineering structures, we’re seeing how powerful digital platforms can be in underpinning the sustainable convergence of IT and OT. The advantages are clear, it’s time for businesses to act. Maybe in another forty years, engineers will look back and wonder why industry was so reluctant to topple the figurative IT and OT castles.

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