Bridging the Gap Between Smart Manufacturing Personas

April 17, 2023
When viewed in the context of three critical technology groups, Smart Manufacturing projects can overcome typical miscommunications that can sabotage progress.

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.” These words were famously spoken by the prison captain in the 1967 classic film “Cool Hand Luke.” In the film, Paul Newman stars as Luke, our protagonist prisoner who escapes multiple times to the ire of the captain but wins the hearts of the other prisoners through his tenacity and cool demeanor.

I liken this “failure to communicate” message to the ever-present headbutting among the various personas involved in Smart Manufacturing pursuits. Commonly, the enterprise IT charter is to align OT (operations technology) data handling and cybersecurity to best practices, while OT tends to perceive this as a threat to the resiliency of the industrial controls they have supported for decades without IT’s help.

System integrators often find themselves in the middle—working with both sides to facilitate viable Smart Manufacturing discussions.

But what is Smart Manufacturing anyway, and how is an integrator relevant in breaking down these communication barriers?

The foundation: industrial IT

Aggregating and analyzing data is the first thing on people’s minds when it comes to Smart Manufacturing. But historically, the industrial network, server and security infrastructure was built in a vacuum with no intention of sharing data outside the confines of the factory walls. Air-gapped systems and isolated islands of automation still exist in industry, but our industry has made significant progress in adopting the concepts of the Purdue Model, which aims to securely converge IT and OT systems.

Implementation of these concepts, however, is a different story. There typically needs to be a corporate champion for these types of foundational infrastructure projects and you need both sides of the house to cooperate and communicate. This cooperation includes buy-in from plant personnel, as they represent a prime communication spot for integrators with industrial IT expertise. The ability to speak equally well from the perspectives of IT and OT is invaluable in driving adoption of broader standards-based infrastructure design and implementation. Without this solid foundation, data aggregation and analysis at scale will not be possible.

The tools: information software

In the context of Smart Manufacturing, purpose-built historians, data servers and reporting systems that OT has relied on for years should not be ignored. In Smart Manufacturing pursuits, there is a tendency to overlook the tools that are already in place in favor of modern edge-to-cloud solutions.

I am not saying these modern solutions are a bad thing. In fact, they are required for deploying large-scale, multi-site solutions. But be aware that the plant’s existing information software may already have operational data that is scrubbed, sorted, grouped and contextualized and, therefore, largely ready for use in Smart Manufacturing. Efforts should be made to leverage these existing data sources rather than setting up new data streams directly from plant floor controllers.

Systems integrators can play a significant role in setting up systems to tap that existing knowledge to help accelerate Smart Manufacturing initiatives and avoid reinventing the wheel.

The terms “manufacturing intelligence” and “information software” are often used interchangeably when referring to solutions that pull together production data from disparate sources. However, I would suggest that the actual intelligence resides in the operational knowledge and experience of highly skilled operators, technicians, supervisors, process engineers and continuous improvement managers as well as systems integrators and vendors in supporting roles.

I say this because, when it comes to Smart Manufacturing, data contextualization is often mentioned as the key component to gaining actionable insights. Bu what is not as often talked about is the process knowledge required to build a data model.

In most cases, the integrator is already entrenched in the inner workings of the customer’s production processes and can be leveraged to advance these data-driven projects. Whether the data requests come from IT or OT, having inquisitive minds and a willingness to interact with subject matter experts in the plant is paramount to the success of data projects at any level.

The bridge: software integration

In the Smart Manufacturing world, systems integration projects increasingly require software integration skillsets to enable enterprise and shop floor applications to exchange data. But system integrators are not always software integrators.

At a very basic level, industrial control systems integration brings together visualization software and controls hardware to execute operational tasks in production. Software integration, however, unifies disparate applications programmatically via programming languages such as C++, C#, Python, PowerShell, Java, JavaScript and Visual Basic. These languages can be used in conjunction with APIs (application programming interfaces) and SDKs (software development kits) to unify enterprise and shop floor applications.

MES (manufacturing execution system) platforms can also provide this kind of application interaction, but many simple use cases do not require the full implementation of MES.

For the system integrator, the key is to leverage knowledge of the customer’s systems and tailor the approach based on the use case. Having software integration experts on staff provides flexibility in the kinds of solutions that can be delivered.

Communicate better to manufacture smarter

When we look at Smart Manufacturing in the context of these three buckets, it is a bit easier to see how communication among the various personas can break down. Understanding and managing the different skill sets and competing priorities within the enterprise is crucial to making data-centric projects successful. That’s why the smart thing to do is involve system integrators with the unique mix of IT, OT and software integration expertise to reach your Smart Manufacturing goals faster.

Dan Malyszko is vice president at Malisko Engineering, a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Malisko Engineering’s profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.

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