Don’t Shortchange Your Operational Technology Network Investment in Your Race to Digital Transformation

Feb. 22, 2021
In order for a highly successful digital transformation and return on investment, special attention needs to be paid to OT network design, architecture, configuration, security, and implementation. Discover tips and tricks your factory should consider.

Many clients we engage regarding manufacturing automation have some aspect of digital transformation in their project plan or initiative.  Harvesting real-time data, and lots of it, from the process cells and work cells is a key element of their deliverables. It should also be a crucial component of the specifications, design, implementation, and investment made during the project’s cost-justification, schedule, and approval. Too many times attention to the robustness and security of the network infrastructure is trivialized and the corresponding investment is underestimated. We’ve seen where this can prove costly in the long run for reaping the full benefits of data harvesting related to digital transformation. To create a better posture for the success of your digital transformation campaign, let’s examine areas where mitigation efforts are needed.

For starters, let’s list some of the significant landmines you may want to avoid or remediate:

  • The most common issue we run across is having a poorly documented and piecemealed existing plant network. In other words, not thinking about standardization, organization, or future confusion when adding to or expanding the OT network. The sooner this is acknowledged and corrected the better.
  • At times there might be a lack of mutual understanding between IT and OT (Plant Engineering) of the objectives, challenges, and limitations each group is tasked with on a daily basis. Encouraging and promoting good idea-sharing can pay tangible dividends.
  • Sometimes budgets for plant-level technical resources do not provide adequate funding to train and equip internal resources to support managed OT networks.
  • IT ownership of the OT network can be good for the organization. When this is the case, it is critical for the stakeholders of any automation project to communicate early and often with IT to ensure the project budget, schedule, and scope to sufficiently cover the technical and support requirements for the expanded/reconfigured OT network. It’s never too soon to involve IT on an OT network planning and coordination project.
  • Many digital transformation initiatives focused on plant floor operations are facilitated by the company’s continuous improvement (CI) group. Vital to the success of a CI’s initiative is getting buy in, cooperation, and consensus with all stakeholders. This includes, but is not limited to: CI, IT, plant engineering (OT), production, and maintenance. CI initiatives related to manufacturing automation generally require a sizable amount of real-time data from the control systems of every process cell and work cell. Critical to the success of a CI initiative is early, frequent, and routine collaboration on the specifications, requirements, and implementation needed to achieve CI’s objectives in a secure environment. 
  • Implementing a physical and logical digital transformation initiative is typically done by way of a staged migration of the OT network that follows an overall strategic plan. It’s crucial that the plan minimizes production interruptions and avoids reworking previous migration steps already completed. In addition, the stakeholders need to create an overall map for the OT network near the beginning of the initiative to maximize potential staging due to production interruption restrictions or annual capital budget constraints. 
  • Continue to adhere to OT network best practices throughout the life cycle of the network. All too often, we see a client initially implement a robust, secure OT network as part of a larger project, only to see subsequent smaller additions not follow best practices.

The majority of existing manufacturing facilities consist of a very wide variety of control system platforms ranging from legacy “hard-wired” through PLCs, DCSs, and proprietary control systems. Implementing a comprehensive digital transformation on the plant floor brings challenges which need to be addressed during the design, planning, and costing of the project. With that in mind, here are a few points to consider.

  • Above all, production cannot be interrupted nor affected during this initiative.
  • Legacy equipment needs to be dealt with through the use of communication bridges to ethernet or control platform upgrades.
  • From the OT network view, plant floor equipment, PLCs, DCSs, VFDs, servos, inspection equipment, and network switches—many previously unmanaged—need to be logically segmented and IP addressed following industry standards and best practices. 
  • The logical network segmentation plan and all connected nodes need to be clearly identified and approved by all stakeholders before being implemented.
  • Once installed, configured, and operational, all network devices and nodes need to be audited and fully documented for future reference. Change control policies are a must have.

It cannot be stressed enough that a great deal of attention needs to be given to the OT network design, architecture, configuration, security, implementation, and support for a digital transformation initiative for it to be highly successful and give the stakeholders a good return on their investment. Early discussions among the stakeholders combined with a robust, secure, and collaborative design will greatly increase the probability of high success for the IIoT ready network layer needed today, as well as in the future.

Steve J. Malyszko, P.E., is chief executive officer 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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