Securing Your Intellectual Property

Protecting an intellectual property is very important for many organizations, it is also the main target for hackers. Steps need to be taken in practically every part of the organization to make sure the intellectual property is secure.

Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., president of ECS Solutions.
Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., president of ECS Solutions.

As U.S. manufacturers once again grapple with outsourcing production to foreign facilities, issues with intellectual property protection begin to arise. Intellectual properties provide companies with a competitive advantage, making them incredibly valuable. Not only does it include patentable property but also the know-how involved in making the products.

The intellectual property for making your product goes beyond the components or ingredients used to make it, setpoints, durations, tolerances, and the best order for performing all steps are also included. When these are strewn about as printed work instructions, they become easier to steal. Conversely, when automated, steps may be hidden from the operator making theft more difficult. However, an electronic-encoded intellectual property can still be hacked. So, using multi-layer security can be used to thwart such attacks. Multi-layer security should include all—or most—of network security, device security, application security, and encryption.

An intellectual property can also be stolen or compromised when plant operations modify product methods and procedures. Products of inferior quality or products unsafe for consumer use steal value from the intellectual property by devaluing the product brand. Automation is combined with logging all system activities to guard against this form of intellectual property theft. Some systems allow playback of system operations through the human-machine interface. Some implement automated notification when an operator varies a procedure in any manner. Both are powerful tools to protect the intellectual property value and train operators to take appropriate actions.

Another form of intellectual property theft involves modification by unauthorized individuals. Owners can protect the source files from which work instructions are printed with file level security although, they cannot, as described above, ensure that the procedures are fastidiously followed. Individuals authorized to modify a programmable logic controller, programmable automation controller, or distributed control system programming may or may not comprehend how a programming “fix” can affect intellectual property.

The effects of a change may not be immediately noticed, but during this time hundreds of thousands of dollars of inferior or unsafe product contaminates downstream equipment and inventory or is packaged and warehoused or shipped. Best-in-class systems not only provide access security, they implement version management and roll-back for quick recovery. When an intellectual property is programmed into the control system, such rollback is not possible without additional software and may be cumbersome to use in that it restores an entire program, not just the specific procedure.

Should a plant be ravaged by disease, as we see happening these days, highly automated systems can continue to produce quality products even when staffed with less skilled, temporary, operators. Intellectual properties managed by a secure procedure manager could save millions in lost production and bad publicity as recently experienced by several meat packaging facilities. Obviously, certain products and procedures lend themselves better to automation, but disaster is indiscriminate.

Best-in-class automation—including best in class procedure management—combats all these threats to intellectual property, the value of the intellectual property and use of it. Capable control systems integrators can help you secure your intellectual property from theft, damage and more.

Timothy S. Matheny, P.E., is president of ECS Solutions, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). He is also author of a paper on model-based control, presented to the ISA Food and Pharmaceutical Industry Division in 2014. To obtain a copy of Matheny’s paper, or for more information about ECS Solutions, visit its profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.