Identifying IIoT risks and rewards

Integrators provide a safe passage to smart factory technology

By Jason Baron December 19, 2018

Is your company ready to connect your equipment into one ecosystem? The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is a process of communication between equipment for industrial manufacturing. It is often used to improve repeatability, traceability, quality control, proactive maintenance, and safety through connectivity. You can assimilate disparate systems into one efficient arrangement, but there are risks. Without a proper integration process, you could open your company to security risks or resource availability issues.

The IIoT collects data from a network of equipment to automatically analyze and deliver reports that can allow you to make better decisions faster and more efficiently. These systems often share data in a cloud-based storage platform and give automated reports in real time.

Information technology implications

What are the potential risks for small- to medium-sized companies? How do we minimize these risks? Before making the decision to jump in, it is important to consider your specific internet-based cloud storage needs and your technological infrastructure.

  1. Will cloud storage increase efficiency and effectiveness for my company?
  2. What process will minimize my risk of security threats?
  3. Do I have the resources to adapt and adopt the IIoT process? 

Is it worth the security risk?

As with any online data storage, the potential for security breaches can be minimized and mitigated, but never fully nullified. This reality is among the first that any business must consider before making the decision to use an IIoT platform.

A challenge of this network is that, traditionally, industrial automation systems have almost always been physically separated from business network systems; thereby making them secure from remote threats.

Transferring an existing system to an IIoT system must include setting up firewalls to protect data entering from external non-related sources. Firewalls would make it difficult to receive unwanted data so that the primary security concern is limited to unauthorized extraction of data—which should be addressed through the development of data access protocols.

Regular security checks and maintenance should also be factored into a cost analysis. According to EPIC Systems senior network administrator James Knight, “Security patching is important and should be done on a schedule. This is a process that should not be skipped as it is common for new security threats to arise as vulnerabilities are discovered. Consequently, this process should include not only computers, but also firmware updates on network devices like switches.”

A well-segregated network that splits the IT and operational technology (OT) so they don’t “touch” often eliminates a majority of concerns when it comes to making compromises in security. However, access to all pertinent data emanating from the plant machinery and systems is vital to plant personnel. Investing in the proper devices to make this possible will further the goals of both IT and OT.

With so many provisions to account for, the most important step is a current evaluation of the IT structure. If smaller manufacturers wish to enhance their process automation systems to include cloud-based storage, they will need to update their data security systems as a first step to protection.

Project and maintenance resources

Another factor to consider is the IT department resources needed to carry out this system transfer. Managing the transformation requires managing and understanding the business objectives of both your IT specialists and systems engineers.

A major concern of many smaller entities is the possible downtime that might occur due to the transfer. The lack of a capable operating system or in-house staff that can update the system has the potential to cause major downtime between testing, system updates, and regular maintenance schedules. Information such as the number of lines your plant is operating, and how much of a handle you have on your systems monitoring is vital to determining your plants need for an overhaul.

A transition to the IIoT requires a shift to new system setups, protocols, and possibly complete equipment overhaul, updates, and security enhancements. Developing systems or networks that can facilitate the change in protocols is a vital step in the transition.

An update in hardware is a necessity so that data can be collected and transferred to office and/or management personnel and can help streamline decisions regarding various performance measures.

Relying on a professional system integrator that works closely with an experienced IT department to execute and manage the assimilation to the new system is ideal for smaller firms that do not have the engineering or maintenance staff for the changeover.

Efficiency and effectiveness

A common misconception of entities that are considering digitizing is that a transfer to a digitized system automatically equates to efficiency and effectiveness. At the onset, that may seem an obvious conclusion; however, what happens when the capacity of a plant does not lend itself to the resource demands of a new web-based set-up?

When using a machine that has a full operating system, companies should consider a long-term service operating system. This helps to reduce downtime caused by updates, but still provides security updates on a schedule that can be regulated and scheduled specifically to avoid peak production hours.

To maintain an efficient use of storage space and time spent on analysis, maintaining a clear segregation between input/output (I/O) data and the data that you want stored on the cloud is imperative. There would not need to be an interruption between the I/O connection to the programmable logic controller (PLC) for the IIoT system to be installed and functional. In fact, the desire would be to keep that data separated due to the monotony of the data and the amount of storage it could potentially take up.

Integration of cloud-based storage is often the right move for industrial manufacturers in competitive industries, but small- to mid-sized manufacturers should seriously weigh the costs of such an integration against the expected effectiveness. Questions regarding security, staffing, training, existing performance challenges that need to be addressed, as well as system maintenance cannot be overlooked when considering this shift to the digitized industrial age.

Jason Baron is the power and controls group manager for EPIC Systems Group LLC. 

Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Power and controls group manager for EPIC Systems Group LLC