How are manufacturers filling their digital skills gaps?

Posted on 17 Jan 2018 by Jonny Williamson

Almost every business, regardless of size, sector or geography, is being urged to create internal digital capabilities. But how is this need being manifested, and what role will ‘operational technologists’ play?

Engineer Laptop Digital Skills Data - image courtesy of Depositphotos
The rise of smart manufacturing has seen production plants evolve and traditional siloes being broken down – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Historically, a manufacturer’s information technology department and its team of automation production engineers have typically operated in isolation.

Their functions didn’t necessarily overlap and the two were often overseen by separate management teams.

However, the rise of smart manufacturing – driven by the power and connectivity of the industrial internet, has seen production plants evolve and traditional siloes being broken down.

This disruption has given rise to new positions such as ‘chief adoption officers’, ‘data managers’ and ‘heads of digital’. It has also led to operational technology (OT) becoming a key pillar of many a future strategy; an approach which not only needs a bridge between OT and IT functions, but relies on it.

The Manufacturer recently sat down with John Fryer, senior director of industry solutions for global fault tolerant computer servers and software company, Stratus Technologies, to discuss digital skills and what the future may hold.

“A lot of Stratus’ business today is still around taking an old traditional automation network, one application often running on an old PC with dated software, and consolidating it and ‘virtualising’ it.

“When you mention virtualisation or operational technology, there are still a lot of people out there who have to be convinced that they are okay to deploy. Whether you like it or not, age plays a factor here.

“The automation industry workforce is predominantly made up of people in their 40s or 50s, people who are 10 years or less from retirement. For the most part, that age group isn’t particularly digitally savvy. Sure, they may have smartphones and laptops, but they don’t make full use of their capabilities and applications in the same way that a millennial might, for example.

“That’s one challenge. The other is that after an automation network was installed, it typically remained unchanged, often for decades.

“When a part broke, it was repaired or replaced, the network as a whole stayed the same. This has led to a general reluctance towards change and moving forward, especially regarding a comprehensive upheaval.”

‘Hybrid OT’

According to Fryer, visits to manufacturers have increasingly seen him interact with operational technologists – a modern evolution of automation engineers.

“A discussion around platform selection typically involves input from both IT and OT teams, and there can be a lot of friction between the two. What we’re starting to see emerge is the concept of ‘hybrid OT engineers’.

“These are people who understand the requirements of automation networks, the determinism that’s required, the importance of availability and unplanned downtime, etc., yet, who possess the digital skills that you need to run cybersecurity, to handle virtualisation, networking, interconnectivity, and to deploy applications in the support of that.

“That’s the key skill that will be necessary for the successful adoption of industrial internet technologies. It’s important to stress that these technologies are available and being leveraged now. Several of our end-users, partners and particularly system integrators, for example, are developing that skillset or already have it.

“Whether it’s somebody from the OT side who has an interest and taken on that role, or somebody who has come from IT and migrated over to OT, that skillset is only going to grow in importance over the coming months and years.

“I suspect that it will largely come from younger people. There’s a real opportunity here, I think, for a younger generation of people to get involved in and excited about the automation industry.”

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