Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Feb. 27, 2017
The troubled waters in this instance run through the chasm often separating the enterprise and the plant floor. Along with technology, control system integrators can help build a bridge.

It’s important for information to flow freely between the plant floor and the enterprise and all places in between, such as quality and maintenance. But misunderstandings of each other’s space have created troubled waters flowing in the chasm between the front office/IT and operations/OT.

Fortunately, in my opinion, those waters are beginning to calm. Part of the reason is that technology has advanced so extensively in recent years that hardware and software that once existed only on the plant floor can now function near the enterprise level. Technology is both forcing and enabling this proverbial bridge to be built.

So what industry is best positioned to serve as the builder of the bridge? No doubt I’m biased, but it’s the control system integration industry. Working in conjunction with technology suppliers and local distributors, system integrators are uniquely positioned to select the appropriate technologies, both hardware and software, and then develop the final custom product that meets the client’s requirements for the management and visibility of information.

Integrators work with enterprise system developers to bridge the information chasm. Enterprise system developers reach the edge of one side of the chasm, and system integrators reach the other edge, and also build the bridges. Integrators know how to get information from old, legacy controllers (i.e. Siemens, Rockwell) and pass the information to enterprise system developers for them to work their “information magic” at the enterprise level. Together, system integrators and enterprise system developers put the right information in the right hands at the right time, including mobile devices, to make factories more productive.

The implementation of edge computing is also an opportunity for the IT and OT folks to work together. Edge computing is the concept of gathering physical, real-world, plant-floor data into a device on the “edge” of the plant network where data is compiled and reduced, and then securely passed to the cloud for storage, processing and analysis. Edge devices are important for data efficiency, security and compliance.

Another important consideration is modernization. Although system integrators can get data from old, legacy controllers, modernizing control and information systems is encouraged because it opens the door to greater capabilities and speed of communications. Good OT and IT collaboration enables a flattened architecture and seamless communication between plant-floor machines and the enterprise using open, standards-based communication protocols. Then end users can take full advantage of effective data management. A secondary benefit is that modernization overcomes the problem of the finite and diminishing supply of replacement parts for legacy controllers, and the lack of technical expertise to deal with the old systems.

C-level managers often view data management and visibility as a want-to-have, but it’s a must-have in today’s business environment. If you think of this newly available information at all levels of a manufacturing facility as the cake, operational efficiency and process improvements that will naturally follow are the icing on the cake.

The troubled waters between IT and OT regarding remote access to control systems can finally be set aside because there are many secure products available today to safely access networks and control systems from outside of a plant. Referencing standards such as ISA99 and IEC 62443 as guides for secure network design and implementation, plus using standards-compliant devices, allows both IT and OT personnel to collaborate and feel assured that their plant is secure even when using remote access for troubleshooting and diagnostics.

Robert Lowe is co-founder and CEO of Loman Control Systems Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Loman’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange by CSIA.