Creating a New Breed of Manufacturing IT

Sept. 24, 2015
The convergence of information technology and operation technology on the plant floor is igniting the need for a new skillset that combines computer science and plant engineering.

Like many CIOs, Howell Hicks is on a mission to connect the enterprise and the shop floor. For the past few years, his technology team at McElroy Metal, which makes building components, has been trying to tie together enterprise resource planning (ERP) software with machine control systems to share files related to materials and scheduling. Connecting these two worlds together would eliminate the need to rekey order information on the production line and drastically reduce potential errors, as each milling job is highly customized.

Though the mission is straightforward, the execution is not—not because of system interoperability challenges, but human obstacles related to expertise. Specifically, there are very different skillsets required for enterprise information technology (IT) and industrial operation technology (OT).

People trained to work in IT are focused on computer systems, networks and enterprise applications. They are used to reacting to trouble tickets and troubleshooting problems to get systems back online to avoid inconveniencing end users. OT folks, on the other hand, work proactively and in real time; their machine downtime doesn’t mean the company will miss a few emails, but rather a few hundred thousand dollars.

Not only do these two groups work in different ways, but they also speak different languages—from the technology lingo to the actual communication protocols. As a result, traditionally, there’s been a clear line between these two domains, and never the twain shall meet—until now.

For example, Hicks hired a person who not only has experience programming PLCs, but also knows Microsoft .NET. “[This person] bridges that gap between someone who has purely shop floor control experience and someone who knows more conventional development languages,” Hicks says.

The coming together of IT and OT has been happening slowly over the past several years as a result of the adoption of Ethernet on the factory floor and industrial gateways connecting legacy field devices to the TCP/IP network infrastructure. Now, as manufacturers move toward the use of Big Data analytics, adopt virtualization software for resource sharing, and add more intelligent devices to create their own Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), that indelible line between the plant and the enterprise departments is fading really fast.

These technology trends are creating a need to cultivate a new skillset that blends IT and OT. That has many manufacturers turning to system integrators, vendors and technical colleges to find this new type of talent that has no official name. Some call it manufacturing IT, while others refer to this role as an information engineer. Ultimately, it is not the title that matters, but the ability to develop this combined skillset. And, to be successfully implemented, companies will also have to change their cultures and organizational structures as they nurture a new united workforce.

“This falls under the category of ‘what keeps you up at night,’” says Chuck Edwards, president of Lenze, which manufactures automation technology and drives, “because the wall between the office and the plant floor is going away.”

With the wall crumbling, there are requirements for hybrid competencies. People with native technology skills, coupled with the ability to learn and the ability to communicate, are what’s needed, Edwards says.

Out of control

Though McElroy Metal hired someone with dual expertise, they are not focusing on one person who can do it all—instead they are focusing on a team of people who are exposed to the cross-functional requirements and who work collaboratively within the system integration group. Integration of the ERP and shop floor scheduling software has been completed at one of McElroy’s 12 plants. The plan is to initiate a widespread roll-out to all of the plants throughout the country and to add new kinds of IT/OT capabilities, such as the ability to bring post-production statistics into the manufacturing control systems to compare what was supposed to run, based on the ERP order, to what actually happened on the line. They are also working on bringing data produced by the shop floor controllers back to the ERP system for reporting purposes.

Leading these integration efforts are two people who are supported by the entire IT department. “No one person knows everything—especially with the disparity that exists between shop floor control and back office processing and programming,” Hicks says. “So we have to put the right people together.”

Sometimes the right people come in the form of third-party control system integrators, since these folks are on the front lines of the IT infiltration of the factory floor. More and more, manufacturing customers ask system integrators to handle hardware, software and network requirements in addition to automation integration.

Larry Asher, director of operations at Bachelor Controls, a system integrator and member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), recently created a new role within the organization called “operational technology analyst.” This specialist is responsible for the application of IT to industrial control, including hardware, network topology and remote access technology.

In addition, to keep the OT analysts up-to-date, these individuals also support the IT infrastructure within Bachelor Controls. “We believe this will keep them current in their skillsets and help us bridge the gap when dealing with customers,” Asher says. “That’s because now we have a peer-to-peer relationship [with customers] when we talk about implementing technology on the plant floor that is tied to enterprise systems.”

Process and Data Automation’s SCADA Lab gives manufacturers hands-on experience with IT, networking and automation technologies.

Similarly, another system integrator and CSIA member, Process and Data Automation (PDA), has, as the company name implies, two internal groups—one dealing with automation for process industries like food and beverage and water/wastewater, and the other dealing with the exchange of data between ERP and factory floor equipment. PDA not only goes to the client site to automate and integrate systems, but the company brings its clients back to its new SCADA Lab—built in the past few months and complete with a mock factory—to teach them about anything they want to know, from Ethernet switches to cybersecurity.

Client needs vary, says PDA president Joe Snyder, but the motivation—to bridge the gap between IT and OT—is the same. “We’ve always had a laboratory in our building as an area where people can physically play with things to help make sense of the physical world,” he says. “But we added our SCADA lab because we can’t ignore the growing complexity of software systems and how they intermingle with higher systems.”

With Ethernet as the backbone between the office and the factory floor, as well as giant servers with virtualization software and thin clients populating the plant, there is no clear line of demarcation between the IT data guys and the OT process people. “That’s why we built this lab,” Snyder adds.

Getting schooled

Automation vendors are reacting to this occupational shift by creating products that offer a richer user experience, appealing to emerging IT skillsets on the factory floor.

“Experience trumps features today,” says Rich Carpenter, chief of strategy for GE Intelligent Platforms’ software business. In the past, people would compare product features, but now it is about allowing users to get up and running quickly by providing an interface that is different than the typical industrial design, he says.

GE understands the manufacturing IT dilemma that companies face, since GE faces the same issues internally. “It’s a hard problem to solve for companies,” Carpenter says. “I talk with a lot of IT leaders, and they all wrestle with the best approach.”

For its part, GE created a center of excellence in San Ramon, Calif. The location was deliberate because it is where a lot of consumer Internet technologies are built, and GE is hiring people from Amazon, Google and SAP, for example, to integrate their skillsets with GE’s domain expertise, Carpenter says. The center of excellence started in 2011 as part of GE’s Global Research Division, where the Predix industrial cloud platform is being developed. “We’ve hired a couple hundred data scientists, engineers, cloud computing experts and user experience people who are now working with GE businesses to infuse the day-to-day thinking.”

The organizational shift that GE is making is something every manufacturer should consider to prepare for the future workforce.

“Over the next decade, a whole new generation of manufacturing IT personnel will occupy these positions,” says Subhajit Bagchi, vice president of engineering, industrial networking and security at Belden. “This will be the iPhone/iPad generation who will expect manufacturing systems to be as easy, intuitive and results-oriented as their smartphone apps. As a consequence, usability will become a key design consideration in future OT products.”

The arrival of Millennials into the workforce is actually a boon for companies trying to fuse IT and OT skillsets because they have grown up with technology. They may not know how to “tinker” with things the way Baby Boomers do; Millennials are more used to Googling to find out how to fix something. But they are highly creative problem-solvers, says Shan Smith, a faculty member at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, S.C.

Smith encourages his students to leverage their smartphones as educational tools. “We have students who have never worked with PLCs before, and I [encourage] them to take the initiative to solve problems by finding the information they need,” he says.

Tri-County keeps its industrial automation/mechatronics and computer programming classes separate, but increasingly they are looking for ways to accommodate manufacturing partners by evolving classes to better prepare students for the workforce.

Similarly, Wichita Technical Institute in Kansas has developed an 18-month integrated electronics program that includes industrial controls and networking. The school is looking at increasing the length of the electronics program and integrating an IT class because of the mixed technology emerging in manufacturing, says campus director Rod Moore. “We are seeing electronics students come back after graduation and go through the IT program based on what they are doing in the field,” he says.

Identifying a need for continuing education while on the job, IT and automation vendors are beginning to collaborate on new training and certification programs, too. Last year, Cisco and Rockwell Automation jointly rolled out the Managing Industrial Networks with Cisco Networking Technologies training course and the Cisco Industrial Networking Specialist certification to provide foundational skills. In May, they announced the addition of a five-day, hands-on course called Managing Industrial Networks for Manufacturing with Cisco Technologies and Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) Industrial certification exam. The course offers deeper analysis of EtherNet/IP with industrial protocols, wireless and security technologies, and advanced troubleshooting. The CCNA certification ensures that OT and IT professionals have the skills needed to design, manage and operate converged industrial networks.

Beyond the cross-functional technical training, “my team realized they are not even speaking the same language in the classroom,” says Glenn Goldney, Rockwell Automation’s global business manager of training services. “We are bringing this together as well, with two new courses on the essentials of IT for the OT pro,” and vice versa. It is a communication and culture connection, he says.

In addition, Rockwell, Cisco and other vendors, along with academia, have taken it a step further with last year’s introduction of the IoT Industry Talent Consortium. This group will address the projected skills gap of 2 million trained engineers who will need specialized IoT training in the next decade. In addition, the consortium will focus on the fact that college graduates lack the skills to fill new jobs because of curriculum gaps in areas like IoT, analytics and cybercrime.

These new educational movements will likely translate into new kinds of jobs. “Potentially, new personas could come out,” says Kevin Davenport, Cisco’s global solutions manager. “Maybe an IoT engineer with domain expertise on the plant floor and in the enterprise. We are trying to figure out what to call it. It will definitely be a title that conveys the blended IT/OT titles.”

For executives like McElroy Metal’s Hicks, it doesn’t matter what you call the people working on the merger of IT and OT—just that they are working toward a common convergence goal. “We have no name for this team; it’s just my guys working on what we see as our vision,” he says.

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