OT/IT Convergence in a Legacy World

May 25, 2018
Manufacturers discuss the gamut of benefits and pitfalls of getting operational and information teams to work together. There’s been a rapid learning curve for both groups.

The increasing convergence of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) across industry and infrastructure was a recurring theme at the ARC Industry Forum earlier this year in Orlando, Fla. At a session focused on the ramifications of OT/IT convergence in today’s industrial plants, speakers highlighted the need to integrate new approaches with the large installed base of legacy automation assets.

Led by Craig Resnick, ARC Advisory Group vice president, presentations included case studies from a number of industry players: Dale Malony, asset information lead for Honda of America, discussed how the process of digitization to drive machine reliability forces OT/IT integration; Chris Hemric, director of technical services at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, discussed his company’s journey to operational excellence through digital transformation; John Davenport, IT production manager for EnovaPremier, pointed to some key challenges for his company being how to get all systems working together nicely and then easily implement new features as needed; and Melanie Bladow, business technology consultant for Tern Consulting, talked about the critical human side of the equation and how to make this work to an organization’s advantage.

As Resnick pointed out in his introductory presentation, the increasing convergence between OT and IT in today’s industrial plants has led to a rapid learning curve for both groups. In general, IT groups are just starting to learn what “real time” means, and OT groups are starting to learn how they can best leverage IT-enabled technologies in operations. Also, while IT groups have traditionally focused on preserving data integrity and data flows, OT groups are typically more concerned about non-stop system availability to help ensure 24/7 plant operation as well as plant and employee safety.

OT/IT convergence requires both groups to work together to figure out how to connect the large installed base of legacy OT assets (control systems, instrumentation, etc.) with today’s powerful IT-enabled systems to improve business performance without compromising system availability. “The reality is that we still have 30-year-old legacy assets in our plants and we simply can’t afford to do a wholesale rip and replace,” Resnick explained. “This makes it necessary to figure out how to connect our legacy control systems to an IIoT [Industrial Internet of Things] world.”

Furthermore, as automation systems become more complex, the probability of human-influenced errors increases, Resnick noted. “Anything that can be done to reduce complexity should be considered and implemented as this will help minimize the probability of human error,” he said.

One of the major challenges involves the dramatically different lifecycles between OT and IT. While process control systems and field networks typically remain in service for 20-30 years or more, most IT technologies are updated or replaced every several years to avoid technological obsolescence in this rapidly evolving space.

Another significant challenge that has emerged in recent years involves ownership and responsibility. “In this case, the convergence of real-time operations technology with transactional information technology is just one element of technology change to which organizations must adapt,” Resnick explained. “To prevent declining performance, it’s critical for an organization to assess both its maturity and its ability to evolve and change. Whatever the cause (technology, economics, geopolitical, etc.), organizations need to refresh their thinking periodically and modify their organizational design to adapt and survive.”

As the needs of OT and IT begin to converge, so does the obvious focus on cybersecurity. OT’s emphasis on non-stop operations and eliminating unscheduled downtime is raising the cybersecurity issue on the IT side, and increased data from IT is raising the same issue on the OT side.

“Each organization’s behavior is driven by what they value, how they think and how they are rewarded. OT professionals prioritize availability over everything else. This includes systemwide integrity and security. Unless the few-and-far-between upgrades are going on, system access is generally limited, and the environment is stable,” Resnick said. “IT thinks differently. Their priorities are characterized by access security—ensuring that only the right people have access to the right systems and that malicious actors cannot gain access.”

IT systems typically require frequent—often daily—software patches and updates, which can be more difficult to accommodate in a non-stop, 24/7 production environment, especially if OT system downtime is required to perform the patch or update.

Despite these and other challenges, OT/IT convergence offers significant potential benefits, many of which are already well-proven in industrial plants and factories around the world:

  • Reduced process variability and energy consumption
  • Improved product quality
  • Improved asset health and reliability
  • Improved incident prediction to avoid upsets
  • Improved responsiveness to customers
  • Streamlined work processes
  • Better ability to take advantage of emerging technologies
  • Improved ability to attract a modern workforce

Many in industry have assumed that IIoT will play a key role in digital transformation and OT/IT convergence. It’s interesting to note, however, that while Big Data, analytics and Internet technologies in general certainly played an important role in each of the three end user case studies in this forum session on OT/IT convergence, none appeared to highlight the use of IIoT-connected smart devices.

One likely explanation for this is that all three presenters came from primarily discrete manufacturing operations (automobile assembly, cigarette manufacturing and automotive component assembly) that do not involve geographically dispersed assets, such as those that would be found in oil and gas production, renewable energy generation, electric transmission and distribution operations, etc. The other likely explanation is that—though they certainly have not shied away from taking advantage of IT—these manufacturers already get adequate asset data through their industrial networks, lessening the value and potential risk that would be associated with implementing non-industrial, IIoT-connected devices. In other words, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

>>Paul Miller, [email protected], editorial director at ARC Advisory Group, has been studying and writing about the industrial automation industry for 30 years.

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