What is IT/OT Convergence?
With the emergence of the Industrial Internet of Things, manufacturers now talk about connected factories.
This connection has led to some unexpected developments on the shop floor. One, in particular, stands out. The previously separate domains of operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) are increasingly one and the same.
Analysts have called this the IT/OT convergence, signaling that there is less distance than ever between the systems that control manufacturing processes and those that control data storage, communications, and computing.
Here, we’ll explain what the IT/OT convergence is, what it means for you, and share some suggestions for getting the most out of your connected factory.
IT/OT Convergence Defined
The IT/OT convergence is the integration of manufacturing systems controlling physical events and processes with back-end hardware and software for conveying and processing information.
In order to understand what the IT/OT convergence means at this particular moment, it’s important to understand how manufacturing technologies have historically been sorted into the IT and OT buckets.
OT in Manufacturing
Operational technology in manufacturing includes the hardware and software systems that control and execute processes on the shop floor.
Historically, OT has included systems like MES, SCADA, PLCs, and CNCs.
While these systems can be extremely sophisticated, they weren’t always networked. So even though mechanical OT systems in manufacturing were quick to embrace digital technologies, they often weren’t integrated into a broader, computerized system.
Given the breadth of OT in manufacturing, the modern factory often includes many machines, devices, and control mechanisms operating in relative isolation, and communicating using a variety of niche protocols. This has created silos, communication difficulties, and blindspots in processes.
As TechTarget summarizes of OT in industrial contexts like manufacturing, “unlike information technology (IT), the technology that controlled operations in those industries was not networked. Many of the tools for monitoring or making adjustments to physical devices were mechanical and those that did have digital controls used closed proprietary protocols.”
IT in Manufacturing
Information technology, in contrast, refers to the information infrastructure in a given operation. It encompasses the network architecture, and all of the hardware and software components necessary for processing and storing of information.
IT includes hardware like laptops and servers, software, as well as enterprise systems software like ERPs, inventory management programs, and other business-related tools.
Tracking the Convergence of Operational and Informational: A Case of Gradual Integration
In the last ten years, the distance between operational technology and information technology has grown slimmer and slimmer.
In part, this can be attributed to ubiquitous internet connectivity, and especially to wireless internet.
Increasingly, components of OT could communicate directly with other machines (machine-to-machine), as well as with centralized servers. Rather than existing in silos, they were able to transfer information across and IT network. This was done in a variety of ways, including native functionality, gateways and protocol converters, and more thorough integrations with traditional IT systems.
Further, a greater number of devices and sensors emerged to facilitate connectivity. With lightweight, connection-ready sensors, manufacturers could network their legacy and analog equipment.
With manufacturers’ adoption of the cloud, a greater number of machines, devices, and processes became part of a single, centralized network.
When we talk about modern IoT systems, in many ways we’re talking about this convergence between two previously distinct domains.
Indeed, many of the most exciting advances of Industry 4.0 are possible precisely because the systems that execute manufacturing functions are more integrated than ever with information infrastructure.
Why Convergence Matters
For many manufacturers, this convergence has been a fact of life.
The term “IT/OT convergence” simply names something that many manufacturers have experienced firsthand over the years, perhaps without realizing it.
Over time, this convergence has changed the way manufacturers work. Increasingly, engineers needed to perform work traditionally done by software developers, systems integrators, and, in turn, network specialists. IT specialist did a greater portion of their job working with equipment and systems on the shop floor.
Because manufacturing systems married the worlds of IT and OT, workers on the shop floor had to improve their abilities in this new area. This was no easy task. As the authors in Digitalist note, specialists in each area, “possess[ed] vast experience and competence in their own domains.” At the very least, manufacturing experts found themselves working more closely with their counterparts in IT.
Convergence matters because it changed the nature of manufacturing work, gradually but surely. It matters because it’s created opportunities for order-of-magnitude improvements to the manufacturing process for those willing to act.
Creating Value in the Connected Factory
There are several ways manufacturers can take advantage of the enhanced networking and connectivity of manufacturing tools and assets. Understanding this phenomenon is key to taking advantage of it.
Convergence to Simplify Process Control
Convergence has made it possible to create more holistic controls over manufacturing systems. With recent advances in manufacturing applications platforms, this can be accomplished without creating bulky, immutable MES-style systems.
When IT and OT operated as separate systems, there were fewer means for controlling manufacturing processes. Mastering control systems required mastering technologies designed for a single purpose, which required equally unique domain expertise to operate. This meant that industrial engineers found themselves in command of many, singular systems without significant overlap.
One upshot of the IT/OT convergence is that IT systems have a greater part to play in facilitating and managing processes on the shop floor. Now, manufacturing engineers can take advantage of the connectivity of devices to create new and ad hoc networks on the shop floor.
Because there’s greater connectivity between machines, sensors, and humans, it’s possible to create more responsive, agile processes with less investment in on-premise infrastructure. The result is improved quality, efficiency, and control.
Connected Factories Create Real-Time Visibility
As a result of increased connectivity, manufacturing systems create a tremendous quantity of data.
Because of the IT/OT convergence, manufacturers can begin to turn the data generated by machines and processes into valuable insights.
Previously, aggregating the data generated by machines in processes required significant manual effort, as well as pulling information from many disparate sources. Now, the fact that machines, gateways, and sensors are all connected to a centralized information system, data from many sources can be combined into a holistic picture of operations.
The result is real-time process visibility and a more thorough understanding of manufacturing processes.
Humans are More Impactful than Ever
When we talk about digital innovation, it’s almost always about technologies and technological advance.
But we’d do just as well to focus on the workers on the shop floor.
Instead of replacing humans, the convergence of operational and information technology has given workers the ability to do more and go further with their improvements.
Now workers have the opportunity to understand processes and design solutions that would have been unthinkable 5 years ago. With improved connective technology, manufacturers can now bring brownfield factories online. They can create systems that take full advantage of the human-to-machine and machine-to-machine connectivity that characterizes cyber-physical systems.
No-Code as the Key to Success in the Connected Factory
With improved networking on the shop floor, the question then becomes, “How can I make the most of this improved connectivity?”
One answer is by designing no-code applications for your unique manufacturing processes.
No-code applications make good on the promise of the IT/OT convergence by connecting IoT devices, sensors, machines, and humans on the shop floor. They are built with humans in mind and provide an easy way to improve quality, efficiency, and more.
They create a middle layer between larger manufacturing and enterprise systems (MES and ERP, for example), and shop floor processes.
With no-code applications, you can aggregate data from multiple machines, departments, or processes into a single dashboard for real-time process visibility. You can connect manual assemblies to IoT devices for in-line quality. And you can build applications that guide operators through complex tasks.
All of this is possible precisely because of the convergence between IT and OT systems.
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