Bridging The Gap Between Information Technology And Operational Technology

Mind The Gap: Bridging The Gap Between Information Technology And Operational Technology

Article originally published at Forbes.

At a time when the global manufacturing marketplace landscape is more competitive than ever, growing numbers of manufacturers are adopting game-changing technologies to overcome complex new challenges and stay ahead of the competition.

Against a backdrop of supply chain disruptions, increasing customer desire for greater customization and partner demands for more trackability, manufacturers are faced with the sometimes daunting task of digital transformation required to accommodate new connected tools and systems. This ongoing revolution of connected capabilities promises to optimize equipment efficiency and streamline the entire product manufacturing value chain.

Unfortunately, introducing smart manufacturing tools and principles into an industrial environment is not always easy. Even in cases where sophisticated systems are in place, the gap between IT connectivity and OT infrastructure can be difficult to close. To fulfill the promise of this exciting new era of manufacturing technology and create connected factories that are highly efficient and hyperflexible and that benefit from self-adapting manufacturing capabilities, we must bridge the gap between IT and OT.

Understanding The Gap

To understand how to bridge the IT/OT divide, we first need to appreciate why it exists. This is not simply a matter of compatibility between old and new tech. OT infrastructure has been developed over the decades to perform a range of specific tasks. Most commonly, the control platforms and legacy manufacturing execution systems (MES) that many manufacturers still rely on were layered on after those production priorities were addressed.

Remarkably, some modern-day manufacturers still use Excel spreadsheets and paper forms to track production, flag problems, manage inventory and monitor other manufacturing metrics. Introducing a sophisticated MES solution powered by IoT and Industry 4.0 is rarely simple, largely because leveraging the connectivity and control that these solutions are capable of requires plugging a round technology peg into the square hole of existing industrial infrastructure.

Building The Bridge

One of the most effective ways to bridge the gap is with an MES—and not just any MES, but one specifically designed to deliver the kind of next-generation connectivity and control that powers leading smart factory environments. The right software is a critically important first step. Leading solutions in this space can be integrated with a range of sensors and smart/connected tools, providing not only the digital architecture for sophisticated control but also the customizable connectivity that makes that control possible.

With the right MES connecting IT and OT, manufacturers can manage and monitor production with a previously unimaginable level of clarity and precision. Beyond basic metrics such as production volume and timing, real-time visibility into operations can identify problems as (or even before) they occur. Image capture and other measuring tools can ensure correct assembly and unlock fully verifiable quality control, and new processes and product variations can be introduced with the push of a button. The digital connectivity of a well-integrated MES system takes everything to the next level.

AI Opportunities

At a time when the power and utility of an increasingly diverse range of AI-powered tools and technology continues to grow at an almost exponential rate, AI can be an important way to help bridge the IT/OT gap.

The predictive power of AI enables manufacturers to leverage historical data and generate what-if scenarios and simulations to identify and implement the kind of proactive operational changes that can make a profound difference in production efficiency. AI also unlocks new horizons in the real-time optimization of OT assets. An empty tank, for example, can trigger an AI-powered calculation about whether and when to start the automated process of beginning refill logistics.

One of the most important functions of AI is to cut through the confusion that so often comes with layers of legacy systems and sophisticated new MES solutions. Depending on access, some individuals may have a clear view of part of the system or a partial understanding of the overall operation. With the cross-platform multi-layered visibility that AI-powered tools and technology are capable of, however, a plant manager or other decision-maker can have immediate access to that kind of visibility and the resulting insights that it provides.

Greater clarity and visibility facilitate informed decision-making at speed, clarifying uncertainty, reducing delays and minimizing downtime. That same kind of cross-platform visibility and transparency can also help AI function as a powerful logistics tool, helping with load management, route planning and optimization for trucking and shipping functions.

Partners, Processes And Best Practices

Over the years, many manufacturing companies have invested in a wide range of solutions with the hopes of improving their current state of operations. All too often, those investments have taken place in a strategic vacuum, often without coordinated planning for the future.

The result, in many cases, is a patchwork ecosystem of technologies in production environments that becomes even more diverse when new acquisitions occur. Many manufacturing companies now not only find themselves without a single suite of products throughout their operations but also with a complex array of disparate parts and processes.

In a space where there is no off-the-shelf MES standard platform, this complexity makes it even more challenging for manufacturers looking to execute a successful digital transformation. A trusted partner can design and integrate an MES solution with existing production processes and successfully bridge the IT/OT gap.

The right partner will provide insight into your needs and help identify not only the end goal but a detailed road map of how to get there in a way that is minimally disruptive, cost-effective and unlocks new value at each step in the transformation process.

How To Move Forward

Companies faced with a daunting digital transformation can maximize their chances of success by making sure the following boxes are checked.

  • Recognize the IT/OT gap.
  • Identify a trusted technology partner.
  • Ask about AI tools and tech.
  • Select and implement the right MES solution.

When executed correctly, the result is a technology solution that bridges the IT/OT gap and delivers the clarity and control that leads to insights, more informed decision-making and faster, more efficient and more flexible operational performance.

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