Transforming manufacturing through IT/OT convergence

Posted on 19 Mar 2024 by The Manufacturer

Amidst the backdrop of sustainability, imperative labour shortages, product complexity and unpredictable supply chains that continue to grip industries worldwide, the transformative power of IT/OT integration is indisputable.

IT/OT convergence is reshaping the manufacturing and product design environment by driving operational efficiency, laying the framework for a digital future and empowering continuous innovation. These advantages are not only vital for surmounting industry obstacles but also for securing the success of organisations for years to come.

Defining IT/OT convergence

To understanding the importance of IT/OT convergence, it’s necessary to first distinguish between the two distinct domains:

Information Technology (IT): IT serves as the central intelligence of an organization, encompassing systems that can analyse and process operational and business data. These resources facilitate the translation of data into actionable insights, enabling workers to make informed decisions. IT infrastructure is characterized by its speed, scalability and adaptability.

Operational technology (OT): OT forms the foundational infrastructure of the factory, traditionally relying on established and proven legacy systems. It interfaces directly with factory-level hardware, including machinery and programmable logic controllers (PLCs). OT systems prioritize reliability and have historically operated independently from IT, with workers possessing unique skillsets tailored to their respective domains.

While these two realms have mainly operated in their own lanes, the challenges of modern manufacturing continue to grow in complexity, causing factories to recognize the value of fusing IT and OT.

Empowering improved operations

Organisations recognize that integrating IT capabilities can enhance existing OT functionalities, leading to numerous benefits such as:

  • Precision in identifying inefficiencies: With IT/OT convergence, manufacturers can save time and money by pinpointing areas of improvement. For example, by monitoring air compressor trends through analysing OT data, IT can swiftly identify energy inefficiencies from worn or leaky components, directing maintenance pre-emptively to prevent significant losses, offering cost and resource savings for manufacturers.
  • Enhanced supply chain resilience: IT/OT convergence provides greater visibility into the supply chain by integrating data from production processes with upstream and downstream systems. This visibility enables better coordination, preparation and planning in the face of unexpected disruptions.
  • Improved sustainability efforts: IT/OT convergence allows factories to keep up with evolving sustainability standards. Armed with real-time machine data, factories can monitor and optimize energy consumption, identify opportunities to reduce waste and boost resource usage. This keeps manufacturers compliant with environmental regulations and reduces their overall carbon footprint.

Enabling closed-loop quality

New data insights from IT/OT convergence foster a closed loop manufacturing approach, supplying designers and developers with information to refine initial product designs. Additionally, closed-loop manufacturing optimizes and synchronizes production across product design and product planning, resulting in a connected network of information that perpetually yields:

  • Significant cost efficiencies
  • Accelerated manufacturing with heightened precision
  • Closed loop quality

This iterative process of closing the loop refines the alignment between the envisioned, actualized and utilised product states.

Key to this approach is the constant monitoring of quality conditions where output parameters are consistently compared against established requirements. Through the integration of IT/OT data collection and feedback mechanisms, this system ensures a fluid and continuous verification process against engineering standards. This agility facilitates immediate design adjustments, keeping designers and developers proactive and responsive to contemporary challenges.

These advantages empower manufacturers to streamline production processes, tackle sustainability regulations and challenges and move towards greater autonomy in manufacturing operations.

Enhancing collaboration with rich data

The convergence of IT and operational OT occurs as real time-data from the factory floor is seamlessly integrated into IT systems. This digital integration allows organisations to enhance decision-making by analysing data from edge sensors embedded in intelligent machines.

With this data, IT/OT convergence can then support digital twin implementation. The digital twin refers to a virtual representation of a physical product, process, shop floor or machine—and it can be an invaluable asset for manufacturers and designers alike. By integrating more and more data, the digital twin bridges the divide between the real and digital worlds, unveiling insights and enhancing production efficiency. This integration hinges on data made accessible with IT/OT convergence. As the data pool grows, the digital twin becomes more robust, allowing designers and developers to adjust product designs for better performance.

Furthermore, by gaining insight into equipment operations, immediate actions can be taken, resulting in optimised factory throughput. This data-driven approach helps identify and address not only potential issues such as equipment failure and stock shortages but can also help designers continuously optimise their designs over a product’s lifetime.

Overall, IT/OT convergence is a catalyst that even drives product innovation, digitalisation and collaboration across the product development landscape. By embracing this convergence, designers and developers can use the rich data insights that IT/OT convergence produces to continuously optimise products. The fusion of IT and OT also enables the adoption of digital tools like the digital twin which can be used to navigate hurdles and, above all, shape the future of design and manufacturing.

Addressing security concerns

Although IT/OT convergence offers benefits including digitalised processes and shop floor to top-floor data insights, it also opens the door to security vulnerabilities due to differing priorities, architectures and new levels of complexity.

Many OT systems run on legacy hardware and were never created with modern security standards in mind, leaving them susceptible to security threats. In addition, converging IT and OT systems increases the complexity and interconnectedness within the manufacturing ecosystem. This widened attack surface provides ample opportunity for attackers to gain access to critical systems and data.

Protecting IT and OT systems and plants from both internal and external threats necessitates a holistic strategy that addresses all levels simultaneously. This ranges from operational and field-level security to robust data protection and secure communication channels. Developing this comprehensive approach will maintain security—ensuring legacy OT systems aren’t vulnerable to emerging threats.

In addition to developing a holistic security strategy, manufacturers adopting IT/OT convergence must foster an open and communicative environment between IT and OT workers. Leveraging the expertise of IT in security protocols can empower OT to maintain compliance. By dismantling traditional barriers between these two domains, they can exchange best practices, learn from one another and most importantly, work together to ensure the security of their operations.

The promising future of IT/OT convergence

IT/OT convergence has evolved from a mere trend to an organisational imperative. The fusion of IT and OT presents a potential solution to the multifaceted challenges facing industries today. By leveraging real-time data analysis and implementing digital twin technology, organisations can optimise production processes and refine product designs with greater efficiency. Moreover, IT/OT convergence isn’t just about staying relevant; it’s about driving manufacturing companies into the future where they can push ahead of the competition and achieve greater operational advantages.

Transforming manufacturing through IT/OT convergence Rahul Garg is the Vice President for Industrial Machinery and SMB at Siemens Digital Industries Software, responsible for defining and delivering key strategic initiatives and solutions, and global business development. He and his team are responsible for identifying key initiatives and developing solutions for the industry while working closely with industry-leading customers and providing thought leadership on new and emerging issues faced by the machinery industry. Rahul’s experience and insight are derived from 25-year career delivering software-based solutions for product engineering and manufacturing innovation for the global manufacturing industry, spanning a career in R&D to program management, sales and P&L management and having focused exclusively on the industrial machinery and heavy equipment industry since 2007.

For more stories about Digital Transformation, click here.