Navigating cybersecurity challenges in plant floor digitization

More devices are connected to the internet than ever, which increases their security risk. Developing a robust cybersecurity plan based on established principles can help mitigate some concerns.

By Scott Dowell December 27, 2023
Courtesy: Wesco


Learning Objectives

  • Learn why manufacturers need to be proactive to manage cybersecurity risk.
  • Understand the sophisticated attacks and threats that are being perpetrated right now.
  • Learn how the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and their Cybersecurity Framework can help address vulnerabilities.



Cybersecurity insights

  • The industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) brings immense potential for manufacturers, but cyber threats pose a significant risk to their safety.
  • Adherence to frameworks like NIST aids in fortifying networks, enabling real-time threat monitoring, minimizing downtime, and enhancing operations.

The industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) revolution is well underway. From small manufacturers to global powerhouses, industrial businesses are coming to understand the power and potential of connected devices and systems. According to a 2021 report from Microsoft, 90% of organizations cited the adoption of IoT as a critical element for success in manufacturing. From operational efficiency to safety, cost containment to productivity, IoT has the potential to deliver positive outcomes in an industrial market where margins are historically razor thin.

However, there is a potential roadblock to successfully digitizing your operations and executing your vision for industry 4.0: If a system is connected to the Internet, it’s vulnerable to cyber attacks.

From access controls to the electric grid, smart buildings to industrial control systems (ICS), end points and opportunities abound for hackers to exploit and they are building automated, credential-based attacks to do that. For those with information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) infrastructure to safeguard, understanding the convergence of those systems and protecting them from nefarious actors is a critical and daunting task.

Cybersecurity attacks also are becoming more sophisticated. According to Symantec, IoT devices are faced with an average of 5,200 cyber-attacks each month. Further research has found ransomware is one of the hottest approaches when it comes to exposing plant floor vulnerabilities.

Ongoing research from Marsh Insurance’s cybersecurity division found that ransomware remains the number one cyber threat. Two-thirds of cyber-attacks are facilitated by ransomware-as-a-service. These schemes aim to create a larger web of opportunities for cyber criminals to exploit by paying “affiliated” hackers to execute pre-developed ransomware schemes and hold data hostage.

These hackers are searching for cracks in your connected infrastructure and once exploited can lead to extended system downtime and lost revenue. Vulnerabilities and weaknesses in your industrial controls network are areas that could most compromise operations or system availability. These include outdated hardware or software, unpatched systems and inadequate security controls.

It’s not all doom and gloom, however. There are strategies that can increase network performance and availability while building a more secure, robust and resilient network. For example, consider preventive and predictive plant services that help illuminate the current state of what’s installed on the plant floor. Once the risk is understood, companies should work to ensure the security roadmaps are aligned with industry standards and best practices, which is an effective and straightforward way to stay on top of evolving threats.

Figure 1: Understanding the cybersecurity risks to information technology and operations technology (IT/OT) is paramount.

Figure 1: Understanding the cybersecurity risks to information technology and operations technology (IT/OT) is paramount. Courtesy: Wesco

Six tenants of a successful cybersecurity framework

Having an OT-specific cybersecurity plan is essential to protecting critical assets and mitigate risks on the plant floor. Most companies know this is important, but don’t know where to start. That’s where the NIST Cybersecurity Framework comes into play.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is an offshoot of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the agency’s mission is to promote “innovation and industrial competitiveness” through science, technology, and standards. There are six key tenants:

  1. Identify – Understand which operational processes and critical assets need protection.

  2. Protect – Adopt and deploy safeguards to protect those entities.

  3. Detect – Identify systems that can alert the organization to an active cyber threat.

  4. Respond – Plan and execute for the best ways to contain a threat.

  5. Recover – Restore functions and services to their pre-attack mode.

  6. Govern – Emphasize that cybersecurity is a major source of enterprise risk and a consideration for senior leadership.

The NIST Cybersecurity Framework helps businesses of all sizes better understand, manage and reduce their cybersecurity risk and protect their networks and data. NIST also makes it easy for everyone to work toward the same goal, talk in the same language and streamlines the process to bridge the IT/OT gap and shore up a company’s security posture.

For example, a food supplier experienced a cybersecurity incident on their IT network in 2021. While the situation was contained and didn’t impact production, the company was aware the risk for another such incident was likely around the corner and were interested in further reducing their OT risk.

As a result, the company deployed a more robust cybersecurity program aligned with NIST. They started by conducting cybersecurity health checks. This included an audit to identify vulnerabilities which enabled them to mitigate potential risks that were uncovered during the process and shore up their cybersecurity posture.

Figure 2: Consider implementing preventive and predictive plant services to help illuminate the current state of what’s installed on the plant floor and what needs to be protected.

Figure 2: Consider implementing preventive and predictive plant services to help illuminate the current state of what’s installed on the plant floor and what needs to be protected. Courtesy: Wesco

As a result, they were able to address the vulnerabilities, gain greater insights into the plant floor networks and minimize cybersecurity threats to meet compliance goals. They also gained insight into asset utilization, were able to optimize operations, and reduce downtime from cyber-attacks saving them thousands of dollars. Today, the organization can monitor threat detection in real-time and has expanded their capabilities to two other manufacturing facilities.

Manufacturers need to be proactive in preventing possible risk and damage to their business. Ensuring IT and OT systems are safe and secure requires all-hands-on-deck engagement. By following industry best practices and leaning on established frameworks such as NIST, organizations can continue securely down the path towards IIoT.

Author Bio: Scott Dowell is Senior Vice President and General Manager, Industrial and CIG, at Wesco. He has more than 25 years of experience and leads the strategy, execution and growth of Wesco’s industrial, automation, institutional and government end-user business throughout the United States.