Asset management’s role in the IIoT age

Asset management is a complex challenge requiring equally complex solutions as the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) makes real-time operations a constant reality.

By Tom Dietrich October 19, 2023
Courtesy: Cincinnati Incorporated/Steve Rourke, CFE Media and Technology

Asset management insights

  • Managing diverse assets in global, 24/7 operations poses a challenge. Changes in hardware, firmware, and software necessitate complex asset management solutions.
  • The Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G integration introduce new complexities. Asset management requires real-time understanding of device connections, communication patterns, and potential vulnerabilities. 

As the industrial technology landscape grows and shifts, enterprise organizations are still grappling with understanding what they have at any given time. Managing a corporation with facilities in multiple countries and a 24/7 production schedule means facing a changing environment of disparate devices and communications protocols.

Knowing the asset list is a real challenge. Consider the non-stop changes created by removing old hardware or adding new equipment, which might include new connectivity or communications methods.

Companies also have the firmware and software running all their devices, which many may not realize should include the software bill of materials (SBOM). The SBOM is the list of software libraries and components used to develop the applications running. Asset management is a complex challenge requiring equally complex solutions.

Once there’s a relative understanding of the hardware and software asset inventory, companies must then move on to threats and exploits. New exploits are discovered every day – a never-ending landscape of potential threats varying in their target, attack vector and sophistication. Companies must gather and understand the information about these risks from public and government websites, include the inventory data from the assets and eventually perform an analysis that provides the information needed to create a safer plant.

Companies must ensure there are safeguards that don’t disrupt the core functions of operational technology (OT) machines engaged in facilities management, operations, making, packing, shipping, or safety. The good news is there are steps that can ease this burden.
[subhead] Where to start with asset management
While it can seem overwhelming at times, the response to complex asset management must incorporate multiple disciplines, including the operating system chapter, automation group, network team, security workers, production management and plant operational teams. These groups must be skilled and effective communicators with a breadth and depth of understanding of the technology and the real-world production and operational requirements of each piece of equipment.

However, one mistake can have safety implications for personnel, machines, the facility itself and even entire communities. This is why it’s important to develop a robust and trusted team. If in-house personnel isn’t able to accurately inventory, assess and protect the evolving asset landscape, partnering with a systems integrator is a good second option.

Steps teams can take to gain control of the asset situation include:

1. Begin with hardware

  • Collect a PC/server/virtual asset inventory
  • Add network, storage, power, and facilities details
  • Discover OT-specific devices, PLCs, drives, etc.

2. Add software details

3. Incorporate lifecycle planning

  • Track inventory from purchase request through decommissioning

4. Analyze technology security gaps

5. Remediation

  • Test to understand the impact/process
  • Communicate and plan repairs

6. Assess other security concerns

  • Consider physical aspects such as doors, cameras, and building exteriors.

Develop real-time understanding in the age of connectivity

The advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) has ushered in a new era of interconnected devices, and with it comes the necessity of having a real-time understanding of how all these devices connect and communicate within our facilities. The impending integration of 5G networks adds a layer of complexity, with mounting security concerns about controlling data ingress and egress over new channels. As communication methods like 5G, near-field communication (NFC) and Bluetooth low energy (BLE) enable more industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) devices to communicate, the requirement to understand device locations, communication patterns, and potential vulnerabilities grows exponentially.

The ultimate goal is consolidating these disparate details into a single view for analysis or compartmentalization based on device function and communication channels. Understanding upcoming trends in asset management can help users navigate this dynamic ecosystem.

Relevant trends to watch for include artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which should help improve the speed of the analysis portion of asset management and even assist with some aspects of protection. Opportunities are emerging for new hybrid solutions that might span multiple domains for data collection and then provide incident response recommendations based on the function of monitored devices and how they operate together.

In essence, asset management must encompass a comprehensive approach. It requires understanding a device’s physical location, communication methods, data exchanges, normal patterns, anomalies, machine functions, communication partnerships, and the implications of any changes. It’s not simple by any means, but correlating all this information and making decisions at the pace of business within the rigor and precision of manufacturing is becoming a natural part of contemporary asset management.

Four benefits of asset management programs

The tangible benefits of adopting robust asset management programs can impact the entire organization. Comprehensive asset management drives a better understanding of what the organization has and enables better insight for decision-making. It will continue to evolve to incorporate new areas of discovery and new ways to visualize and analyze the data collected from assets.

Effective asset management allows users to be more proactive in many ways, including:

  • Lifecycle and device maintenance. Asset management can give valuable information on equipment nearing obsolescence or the end of its lifecycle. Planning maintenance and downtime avoids sudden disruptions and failures.

  • Security posture. Companies can determine which devices represent the largest internal and external security threat. Make plans how to design networks to enhance security, reliability and efficiency. Put cyber teams to work remediating any discovered vulnerabilities.

  • Financial decision-making. Learning about what a company has and where it is can help companies to decide which items need replacement. Companies also can see which devices are licensed for which software and where there are opportunities to reallocate licenses for cost savings or reallocate hardware for reduced expenditures.

  • Production continuity. Through careful analysis, companies can plan the maintenance of devices and avoid any disruption to production, as well as avoid security breaches that could result in sabotage or data exfiltration.

The success derived from a well-implemented and comprehensive asset management program can be measured in ripples throughout an organization. It impacts decisions about where to allocate capital, people, and educational needs and allows companies to plan for potential disruptions in an effort to minimize any impact on the company. Many vital business decisions and operations can be supported by robust and reliable asset management.

As technology continues to evolve, companies must adapt and embrace a real-time understanding of the connectivity in the plant and the challenges that come with it. By harnessing the power of new tools like machine learning and advanced IIoT devices for the cause of asset management, an organization can accelerate data analysis for decision-making and fortify cyber protection measures at their facilities.

Author Bio: Tom Dietrich, OT architect, Interstates