The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and its sibling data analytics continue to grow and evolve. Experts in the field do exist and are helping deploy IIoT across industries. However, critical mass of IIoT is still a long way off. The speed at which mass deployment of IIoT is achieved will depend on several factors, including accelerated training of additional technical resources in the areas of proper design, system performance, support and sustainability.
IIoT does not come in a “one size fits all” configuration. The list of technical considerations is sizable, with lots of options for a well-deployed IIoT implementation. Technical resources responsible for and associated with the many facets of deploying and supporting IIoT need the adequate exposure and training for users to gain maximum benefits. A growing importance exists to make the investments in continuing education and training activities by system integrators and end users alike.
Convergence of information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) is happening now. As the sophistication of plant floor technologies continues to explode, so must the skills of the people who design and maintain the automation equipment, software and networks. System integrators need to make a concerted effort to have fully capable OT engineers with a working understanding of server virtualization, routing and switching, firewalls, security, storage area networks, relational databases and VPN tunnels along with traditional instrumentation, control and human-machine interface (HMI) platforms. Likewise, end users must have resources at both the plant and corporate locations who have the knowledge and skills to perform as OT engineers. This technical knowledge and exposure does not come from one source or one website; rather, it comes from many sources and requires an ongoing effort to stay current.
Suppliers and service organizations such as Cisco, Panduit, Rockwell Automation and ARC Advisory Group conduct annual training events open to all technical people. These annual events, typically a week in length, offer in-depth training on OT and IIoT topics. Additionally, these events offer an excellent forum for discussions among peers. The quantity of technical knowledge an attendee walks away with more than offsets the commitment of time and costs to attend such events.
Webinars are routinely held by the suppliers of IIoT products and services. Usually an hour in length, the webinars typically focus on a specific concept, consideration or product offering pertaining to OT and IIoT. Webinars have proven to be an excellent source of knowledge as integrators and end users can attend without the need for travel and with the ability to be time-efficient.
The OT suppliers and service organizations also have partner and certification programs, primarily targeted at system integrators. These programs are specifically designed to establish and recognize competency, capabilities, experience and knowledge of an integrator’s domain expertise for specific technologies and platforms relating to IIoT and OT. Periodic retesting of the integrator’s technical resources assures up-to-date competency and is usually a requirement for an integrator to maintain its status in the supplier’s program. Participation by an integrator in these programs also gives the integrator the opportunity to get glimpses of new features of products not yet released, thus affording the integrator the opportunity to vet whether or not their clients will benefit. Good integrators are routinely the closest to the current and future technologies; and their end-user clients rely on their integrator partners to know what’s new and what can benefit them.
On the more local level, distributors and manufacturers’ representatives are very willing to visit with a system integrator or end user for the purposes of exposing and familiarizing the technical resources with the latest concepts, components and platforms, and their applications to IIoT and OT.
A competent integrator partner will take advantage of all the above channels of knowledge. Integrators wanting to offer their clients sound design and robust IIoT solutions will send their technical people to training on a regular basis, set up “lunch and learns” to share knowledge internally, participate in partner and certification programs, present at sponsored events, frequently attend webinars, stay in close touch with their local distribution partners, and take advantage of training even when the integrator must cover the cost of travel.
Ongoing training and awareness of trends, practices, platforms and pathways to success for deploying IIoT is essential for integrators and end users. Many avenues exist to keep your people’s skills up to date, and all should be frequently used. Most importantly, your organization must make a tangible commitment to allow people to spend the time to learn and enhance their technical OT and IIoT competencies. Integrators become more capable to provide robust OT and IIoT solutions. End users enhance their technical support staff to maintain the OT and IIoT systems and efficiently use the newer tools. Training enables new possibilities and ensures you continue to realize positive results with your automation and IIoT initiatives. The effects on the return on your company’s investment will most likely be very positive.
Steve Malyszko, P.E., is president and CEO of Malisko Engineering Inc., a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). See Malisko Engineering’s profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.