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Optimising IIoT Time To Value With IT-OT Alignment In Manufacturing

There is a popular saying that “if you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together”. These wise words are particularly applicable in manufacturing, where effective production requires the precise coordination of a variety of moving parts. Contributed by Bsquare Corporation

Historically speaking, though, this mantra has not extended across the full breadth of industrial operations. In particular, information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) teams have traditionally worked largely independently of one another–though exceptions do exist.

Now, technological advances are disrupting the status quo. The rise of connected factories and digital transformation initiatives–specifically Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) projects–is forcing manufacturers to rethink conventional, siloed operations. Thanks to IIoT, operational data is more accessible than ever, presenting a massive potential value in the form of opportunities for businesses to gain unprecedented clarity into operations to enhance decision-making, efficiency, and performance. Amplified by intense competition and the harsh realities of economic and regulatory demands, the allure of these benefits is driving IIoT spending to an estimated US$189 billion in 2018 as manufacturers search for an edge.

But it is not as simple as just installing equipment sensors and upgrading software. Effectively deploying IIoT in an industrial environment is a very complex undertaking that requires a careful, strategic approach. And even then, there is intense pressure to demonstrate return on investment (ROI) in short order and continue scaling across operations to maintain a competitive edge. Achieving maximum benefit in the least amount of time takes coordination and cooperation across multiple departments, and bringing IT and OT together is a critical step.

While there are both historical and current examples of successful cross-functional collaboration, aligning these two inherently different organisations is no easy task. Issues around who is responsible for what, unfamiliarity with how each other work, and lack of system organisation were also popular responses.

Enabling IT-OT For Your Business   

Differing missions, priorities, culture, philosophies, education, and background are just a few of the factors shaping the contrasting world views that drive a wedge between these two organisations. Furthermore, intangibles can vary greatly from one company to the next, so there is no uniform guidebook for this relationship. That said, obvious differences in hardware, software, and operating environments provide further context for this departmental divide.

In addition to expected technological differences between companies, the perception of IT’s role and responsibilities can differ across a manufacturing organisation. Typical duties include supporting business and administrative functions and providing network access and connectivity. Their focus on a digital environment makes things like data processing speed, system reliability and security, primary concerns. As such, IT has had to embrace rapid innovation and change to keep pace with developing technology.

Focusing on production environments and interactions in the physical world often ties OT activities directly to the bottom line of the company. Reliability and longevity of business-critical assets are primary concerns, especially since output goals are often on the line. Equipment can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in some cases, operate virtually non-stop, in harsh conditions, spread over great distances for decades at a time.

Additionally, automation and control systems tend to operate in isolation and correspond to a single specific machine and/or manufacturer. Maintaining long-term stability over a widely dispersed asset population running on a combination of unique or custom systems has made OT more resistant to change, and late technology adopters.

Proactive Approach To IT-OT Alignment

Nonetheless, collaboration is not unprecedented. A host of manufacturers have initiated intermittent projects that blurred the IT-OT lines throughout the years. Initiatives generally centred around adapting elements of IT for more industrial environments—such as Ethernet networking and programmable logic controllers (PLCs)—and addressing security issues. These pioneering efforts provide a hint of what cooperation can achieve, paving the way for subsequent joint ventures that are becoming progressively commonplace as technological advancement has accelerated.

The permeation of “smart” equipment has also led some manufacturers to build technology support units within the OT organisation to carry out IT functions. This approach is effective on the department level in terms of facilitating technology upgrades and can help bridge the culture divide by introducing some of the IT point of view into OT. However, it is inefficient on a company-wide level as it requires redundant personnel and resources, making large-scale implementations cumbersome.

The common thread of IT-OT interactions to this point is that each was born out of necessity. But now, to effectively seize the new opportunities advancing technologies present, manufacturers must take the next step. Adopting a proactive approach to IT-OT alignment makes it possible to unlock the full potential of IIoT– helping industrial businesses stay ahead of the curve, avoid technology-enabled disruption, and gain a competitive advantage.

IT-OT Convergence

Though it is been around in some form for years, the proliferation of machine connectivity has shifted into overdrive–steadily infusing OT with elements of IT. These increasingly digital assets set the stage for IIoT to provide access to previously unavailable data. But deploying new technology is only part of the equation.

True digital transformation begins once an IIoT initiative has achieved strategic importance company-wide. It is at this point that companies recognise the need to look beyond old ways of running a business and rethink conventional corporate structures. This realisation enables deeper exploration into new avenues for taking advantage of data coming from operational equipment in concert with other data sources and business systems to fully assess what is possible.

For instance, instead of focusing solely on monitoring and watching individual machines, the OT team can look at opportunities to partner with IT—along with other stakeholders—to collect and analyse data from all connected operational equipment. Such cross-functional efforts are a major step in giving companies a more holistic perspective to help identify inefficiencies and achieve objectives that can maximise ROI, like reducing downtime-producing failures, optimising performance, and promoting longevity.

Overcoming IT-OT Obstacles

There are a variety of technological obstacles to overcome to bring IT and OT together, and a quick online search will turn up volumes detailing those challenges as well as how to conquer them. However, the organisational aspect of IT-OT alignment receives far less attention, even though the structure of this working relationship is equally vital to IIoT success.

Working extensively with industrial companies provides exposure to manufacturing environments across the spectrum of IT-OT maturity. It is not uncommon to find a variety of teams toiling away on disjointed, small-scale technology initiatives. Although these may fit into the overall IIoT category, they may not be recognised as IIoT projects. With minimal communication across departments, it can take work to even identify how many of these siloed skunkworks efforts are even in progress.

A company’s level of IT-OT alignment, as well as overall IIoT strategy, is generally readily apparent very early on. And it can run the gamut from initial exploratory phase to issuing a request for proposal tied to strategic business metrics. However, while the latter will typically see value on a shorter timeline, manufacturers at any stage of IT-OT maturity can achieve ROI with the right strategy, support, personnel, and partners.

A Key Component Is Leadership

In general, IT-OT disconnects and the lack of a dedicated leadership structure go hand-in-hand. Even so, companies still recognise how valuable data is becoming. So, left to their own devices, various business units and operations teams end up tackling a surprising number of individual IIoT projects, usually focused on solving specific, small problems.

For example, IT may be prototyping a system of sensors and software to help track and manage computer and networking equipment inventory, or a system to push software updates to mobile devices. At the same time, OT may be focused on a system that generates alerts for a piece of mission-critical factory equipment to notify plant managers if something happens that will negatively impact production.

More often than not, these siloed skunkworks efforts end up on the scrap heap due to lack of scalability or objectives that do nott align with organisational priorities. And those that do survive can limp along for years in relative obscurity without generating tangible ROI. Neither is a particularly desirable result. That said, manufacturers do not have to blindly accept this fate, but avoiding it takes work. First, trying to identify these little unsanctioned projects can turn into a lengthy scavenger hunt. Then comes the exercise of figuring out a way to legitimise them, procuring the necessary funding, and securing the support they need to become a strategic part of the business.

When analysing the performance of different manufacturer’s IIoT initiative, the companies that typically succeed on the most efficient timelines are the ones that establish a cross-functional team that represents all stakeholders at the outset. This oversight organisation could take many forms–such as a steering committee, centre of excellence, digital transformation unit, or digital innovation centre.

How To Succeed With IT-OT Convergence

Here are steps manufacturers are taking to maximise IIoT ROI through IT-OT alignment:

Secure management buy-in. One of the most important elements in successfully bringing IT and OT together, and the success of any broad-scale IIoT initiative by extension, is buy-in and support from upper management. IIoT must be considered a strategic initiative from the top down in order to ensure collaboration across functional and territorial boundaries. Management must make it clear that the effort is good for the company and as such, requires agreement among the various stakeholders to work together on execution.

Create an organisation responsible for IIoT. Of the numerous companies, across a spectrum of industries, investing in IIoT solutions, a typical hallmark of the most successful is the presence of well-defined overlay organisations. Viewing IIoT initiatives—and IT-OT alignment by extension—as ongoing is a key factor, as constant monitoring, maintenance, and innovation are necessary to ensure a deployment evolves to continuously meet the internal and external demands facing manufacturers.

Steering committees with cross-functional representatives or dedicated centres of excellence-type organisations are best suited to take on the task of understanding the challenges likely to arise, looking for operational efficiencies between groups, and evaluating standards and technology options in concert with any systems and solutions already in place. Some companies have even created entirely new management positions, such as chief digital officer. Regardless of the details, it is important to treat the initiative as its own entity and not simply an offshoot of an existing cost centre.

Establish clear strategic goals. Once management support and team leadership are in place, clearly defining the strategic goals driving the initiative is an essential step. This is a good time to brainstorm all possible opportunities, thinking outside the four walls of the business to consider how the IIoT initiative might integrate with others in the supply chain. Starting from raw material acquisition to post-sale customer relationships, examine supply chain implications, partners, or any other element that intersects any point along the chain.

Develop a data management plan. Planning for data management needs up front is a must. One of the benefits of IIoT is that it provides the ability to set policies, partitions, and different views of data. Companies can establish data sharing controls to dictate which information becomes public, without compromising the privacy of sensitive material.

Enlist stakeholder participation. As these elements come together, bringing in stakeholders from across the company will become necessary. Representatives from departments such as legal, marketing, and support and repair organisations can help guide privacy policies and enhance insight into the company’s new strategies and potential business models.

Ongoing IT-OT collaboration is key to success with IIoT as part of a digital transformation or Industry 4.0 initiative. With organisational and leadership unity, IIoT technology has nearly limitless opportunity to improve business outcomes and expand the potential for new revenue streams far into the future.

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