IT/OT Convergence is Happening Sooner vs. Later in Discrete Manufacturing
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You’ve no doubt heard lots about IT/OT convergence, but did you know this? IT/OT convergence will not only bring IT and OT networks together, but also serve as the backbone of everything set to come in the industrial world: edge computing, analytics, remote commissioning, cobots, etc. IT/OT convergence will pave the way to better efficiency, productivity and problem-solving.
In years past, IT and OT operated separately when it came to team members, responsibilities, priorities and mindsets. IT departments handled business networks with a focus on computers, servers, storage and applications. OT departments handled industrial networks in production environments and concentrated on machines, equipment, protocols, PLC controllers and SCADA systems.
Today, however, there’s a new union taking place. IT stakeholders are gaining more of a say in OT networks and, in some cases, OT network designs and workers are also influencing IT. It makes sense for IT to have more of a stake in connected plant environments since IT/OT convergence is all about sharing data across the two networks.
For instance, maybe a SAP/ERP system—traditionally considered IT technology—is pulling live data from the plant floor so the office side can track analytics like scrap rate and the cost of individual widgets.
The more information you can communicate from the plant floor up to the office, the more opportunity your plant has to recognize patterns and trends—especially when several locations are involved.
Consider Belden as an example. We have manufacturing plants across the globe; each one has similar—yet different—operations. If we don’t communicate plant information to the senior-level operations teams that oversee several plants, then we have little opportunity to share best practices, learn from one another, improve equipment effectiveness and roll out successful processes from one location to another.
IT departments are also encouraging the use of technology like software-defined networking, which creates a virtual abstract version of a physical network. It uses a central controller to control and manage network devices. Rather than manually changing policies at each switch or router, the network can be managed from one central dashboard. You can connect a device to the plant network, and it will automatically determine device type and how it should be connected and configured.
The IT team is not only influencing OT networks, but also getting involved in the core of these networks: the backbone. In the past, backbones were designed to run process automation networks, sensors, conveyor belts and whatever else was needed to support an automation system. Today, a lot more is being added: cameras, digital signage, AV systems, etc.
Bringing IT and OT together is easier said than done. A few challenges emerge as you explore IT/OT convergence and the infrastructure required to support it. Here, we take a look at three of the most common—and how they can be overcome.
Challenge No. 1: Network Complexity
Many OT environments have several protocols to manage as devices from different manufacturers—each requiring different types of cables and connectivity—speak distinct languages based on what they do, how they’re designed and when they were purchased.
A long-time plant employee who has worked with these protocols for years can sustain them—but what happens when that person retires? Will someone else be able to fill their shoes? It’s becoming urgent for plants to convert various protocols in order to standardize devices on one protocol. Cables and connectivity to support these protocols can be converted to Ethernet or single-pair Ethernet to reach long distances and remote areas.
Challenge No. 2: Network Reliability
IT/OT convergence cannot be the cause of complexity or downtime on the factory floor. This means your networks must be designed and built properly from the start—which begins with the physical layer (cabling and connectivity).
Many plants attempt to invest in software applications to solve network and downtime problems without giving network infrastructure a second thought. Once the OT network is designed, it’s often forgotten. But many industrial cabling systems have been in place for 20 years or longer. While these cables are designed to last, it’s also important not to over-extend systems or wait for components to wear out or break. That’s how unplanned downtime starts.
To better understand the status of network reliability, conduct routine network assessments to look at cabling, connectivity, switching, routing and firewalls. This analysis makes sure there aren’t any issues or interference that could lead to downtime or other problems.
According to Datacomm, 72% of network faults are due to problems in the physical layer (field termination is often the weakest link). Knowing this information, it makes sense to invest more in the physical layer—where problems are most likely to occur—than the application layer (where things rarely go wrong).
Challenge No. 3: Network Capacity
IT/OT convergence requires both speed and bandwidth. Does your infrastructure support these requirements?
We’re talking about gigabytes of data communication that needs to be sent for analysis, so OT networks need room to accommodate more speed and bandwidth as communication demands grow in the future.
The infrastructure decisions you make now can ensure futureproof performance for the next 30 years or more. Choosing Category 6A or fiber cabling and connectivity solutions will give you the capacity you need to reliably and confidently transfer lots of data at fast speeds.
In addition, the active network infrastructure equipment (such as switches, routers, and firewalls) should be sized appropriately to allow future expansion and bandwidth scalability.
IT/OT Convergence with Belden
In discrete manufacturing, we anticipate IT/OT convergence happening sooner vs. later. Instead of separate networks, you may see one network that combines IT/OT along with proper segmentation within those networks, as well as a joint backbone that both networks can connect to.
Belden’s team of specialists knows how to connect and protect manufacturing plants and industrial networks, offering the industry’s most complete suite of end-to-end networking solutions available to help you prepare for IT/OT convergence. Our trusted advisors help you build better business outcomes by boosting efficiency, agility, sustainability, safety and security.
Our Customer Innovation Center lets you co-innovate with our expert advisors—sales, technologists, application experts and product engineers—to develop, test, document and deploy solutions to make efficiency, security and innovation goals attainable. You get to see how the solutions we design will work in your environment before they go live.
We can help OT and IT teams successfully manage the convergence learning curve so both groups experience better monitoring, control, analytics and efficiency.
Want to learn more about IT/OT convergence and how Belden can help you prepare for this shift? Visit the smart manufacturing page!
Belden Senior Solution Consultant Manager for Svc and Support, Sylvia Feng, helped me write this blog. She is a tremendous resource who can address any of your digital transformation questions. If you want to know more about this topic, email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Sylvia (Sylvia.Feng@belden.com).