IT vs. OT: Bridging the divide


Twilight of OT?

Individuals working in OT also need a different kind of motivation or they may feel they are stuck in a career dead end. IT skills can be applied in all sorts of industries so an engineer may move from banking to retailing with relative ease. Such is not the case for people coming from OT. “If engineers spend time learning the operations of a particular company or industrial sector, they might be making themselves better in their current job, but not making themselves more marketable or competitive outside of a particular industry,” Conway says. “It’s almost a negative incentive. The better they are in their current jobs in a specific sector, the more responsibility they’re going to get, the more demands that can be put on them in that role, but it’s so specific and such a niche, that it doesn’t help them if they want to look at a job in the banking industry for example. It is important to ensure personnel development goals are aligned and incentives are in place to train personnel for a role and retain those individuals.”

The idea of IT moving into the plant may also be a defensive one that is driven more by necessity than any particular strategic objective. “It is actually easier to train the OT expert and controls engineers on IT and IP-based technology and management of those assets than vice versa,” says Chet Namboodri, managing director of global manufacturing industry sales for Cisco. “The issue is that the controls engineering breed is a bit of a dying one. There’s less of that experience resource available now throughout the world, both in developed economies and more broadly. That said, there are examples of organizations that have been successful in following the convergence approach, and leveraging what they want out of a converged network. The real transformational business value is by using that inherent integration to get at use cases that drive efficiencies or even outside revenues.

The positive side of convergence

While the discussion so far may seem somewhat negative, as Namboodri observes, there are many positive aspects of IT moving more into a manufacturing environment beyond simply filling a staffing gap. “There is value in converging IT and OT from a networking standpoint,” he suggests. “Both IT and OT have a very strong role to play in that integration and the subsequent management of those networks. To highlight one as more important than the other is a disservice to both. There are some technical concerns over things like determinism in motion control, but those are resolving themselves. Those are less of a problem with technology and network convergence than what is really at the heart of making a successful transition into IP-based industrial networks, which is the cultural convergence that needs to take place.

“A number of companies have even gone the next step and organizationally converged manufacturing IT and controls engineering functions under one roof. They recognize that this network, even at the device level, enables visualization with remote access. It enables collaboration between their production experts and operations personnel, maintenance personnel, technicians, and so on, that are on-site through a secure architecture. That’s what they’re starting to leverage systematically. Instead of sending their experts to another plant on a plane to troubleshoot a problem, they’re able to do that with the visualization since a lot of that is seeing what’s happening. They also get data and diagnostic feeds of what’s going on so they can troubleshoot with the people on the plant floor to get an operation back up and running much faster. The trust has been built around the value of IT.”

Both can have seats at the table

Time is not necessarily on the side of traditional OT functions, but given the slow pace of technology change in most manufacturing environments, the devices and networking techniques unique to process plants and manufacturing floors will be around for a long time. Nonetheless, more and more of those networking functions are going to be replaced by IP-based technologies. For the foreseeable future, both will be necessary, although it may be harder to figure out where the fences are.

“The IT/OT line is blurring,” notes Jason Montroy, client relationship manager for Maverick Technologies. “You need engineers that know about both sides. It’s going to remain compartmentalized, at least for a while, to where you’re going to have an IT resource that knows a little bit about automation, and you’ll have an automation resource that knows a little about IT. Those engineers that have skills outside their core competencies will be very highly valued. One positive thing that we’re seeing right now, as we go into opportunities that involve DCS migrations, you’re getting an IT person at the table early in the project. This is very important, because IT is providing the ecosystem that the control system will reside in. Bringing them into the game early on is very beneficial.”

The challenge going forward will be to get the right people into the right positions, even when highly qualified individuals will be harder to find. Companies will have to be more creative, and that in itself could be the biggest challenge to established practices and existing company cultures. IT is coming, and when it’s all done, your networks and information management may be vastly different than they are today.

Peter Welander is a content manager for Control Engineering,

Key concepts:

  • IT is pushing into more areas that were traditionally separated from OT.
  • Expansion of IP-based technologies will displace more industrial protocols.
  • Convergence of IT and OT is growing, and moving into new environments. 

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Chris , NV, United States, 09/09/13 12:02 PM:

In my experience, having been on both sides of this discussion, by creating an environment for both IT and OT to work together you will actually end up with a system that provides a great hybrid of both OT requirements while supporting the IT strategies.
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