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Integrating IT into Process Manufacturing

To many working in process industries, one of the scariest aspects of increased automation integration with IT is having to work side-by-side with IT people. It’s not that they’re a problem personally, it’s just that they don’t always seem to understand industrial systems, and the universal, “Have you tried turning it off and turning it back on again?” remedy simply isn’t practical in the manufacturing world.

But like it or not, OT/IT integration is here to stay and the degree of integration with manufacturing is only going to get deeper. Since the “Windows invasion,” industrial automation systems have never looked back. Chris Logue examines the IT vs OT divide in his article in the Jan/Feb 2019 issue of InTech, Integrating IT into Process Manufacturing.

These two sides have traditionally been separated, perhaps not like oil and water, but they have had their own domains, responsibilities, and ways of doing things. IT responsibilities center around corporate functions and business applications. Technologies and platforms need to stay up to date so the latest cybersecurity and enterprise analytical tools can be used. OT responsibilities concentrate on keeping manufacturing running safely, reliably, and efficiently. Technology can bring a variety of benefits, but there needs to be a good reason to change something that works.

There is much of the problem summarized very succinctly. Different responsibilities create different ways of approaching the same challenges. As IT people move into the plant, they go through an initial period of culture shock as they discover unfamiliar things. They may require some hand-holding from plant folks.

Once the initial shock has worn off, the OT guide may have to restrain some of the new person's enthusiasm. "We can't replace that Windows XP machine because the software on it is necessary to run this part of the production unit. It was developed by vendor X and has never been updated to run on later versions of Windows. If you update the OS, it won't work correctly anymore, and this part of the production will stop. We haven't rebooted this computer in four years, so don't touch it."

Such situations still exist, but hopefully, they are beginning to fade away as such quirky subsystems get replaced as part of larger modernization programs. As Chris points out in the article, the success of such programs depends on helping IT people understand the OT world.

The OT guide will also have to remind the new person how interconnected things are in the plant, and how changing something in one area can ripple through and affect others. Gradually IT technicians begin to see and understand their actions in a larger systemic context rather than thinking of each task in isolation. The notion of how a change might affect safety or production will, hopefully, begin to sink in, and the larger picture will take shape.

The article examines how OT applications are becoming less arcane and shackled so completely to hardware. WirelessHART is emerging as a critical tool to help connect the two sides, including legacy platforms.

Anyone watching the development of industrial automation technology over the past 15 years has seen many technological changes. The notion of proprietary equipment, unique operating systems, and networking strategies is rapidly disappearing. Therefore, OT is looking more like IT all the time, and to most, this is not a bad thing. IP-based networking strategies are being used for industrial applications as issues such as determinism get worked out. The ease with which WirelessHART and wireless Ethernet can interface and work together is a prime example.

What does the future hold? The article offers some likely changes, which in the long run will be beneficial to all. You can find more information like this and meet with other people looking at the same kinds of situations in the Emerson Exchange365 community. It’s a place where you can communicate and exchange information with experts and peers in all sorts of industries around the world. Look for the WirelessHART and Digital Transformation Groups and other specialty areas for suggestions and answers.

Posted by Deanna Johnson, Director Integrated Marketing Communications for Machine Automation Solutions