Smart Machines & Factories
The benefits of OT to IT convergence
Published:  13 July, 2021
The convergence of IT technology into OT machinery opens the door to a world of transparency and risk mitigation not normally available in the industrial space and reducing downtime

Matt Lundberg* takes a look at how to reduce overheads and downtime with OT to IT convergence.

The convergence of IT technology into OT machinery opens the door to a world of transparency and risk mitigation not normally available in the industrial space and reducing downtime. Overheads and operation issues are just some of the benefits to making the transition into an Industrial IoT integrated OT installation.

What defines OT?

The term OT, or Operational Technology, defines physical machinery located in industrial workspaces. From simple lathes to production line robots assembling car engines, from log saws to CNC machines cutting brackets for industrial shelving units, physical machinery has been the mainstay of industry for hundreds of years. We can look back centuries, to steam-powered ploughs, and sewing looms in the fabric factories of Manchester, all of which were designed to reduce load on humans and increase productivity.

Machines in the more modern OT space comprise things such as valves, pressure tanks, motors, PLCs, all moving or degradable parts which require some level of maintenance to prevent failures.

With physicality comes the requirement for safety. With moving parts in large machinery for instance failures can not only be costly in repairs and downtime but could also result in injury to machine operators and factory workers. Should a valve become defective, or a sensor monitoring that valve, the consequences can be, and often have been, disastrous.

Longevity is also a big factor in Operational Technology installations. Factory owners look for reliability and stability, as frequent obsolescence or short lifespans of physical machinery can lead to costly upgrades, replacements, and issues with downtime caused by difficulties in component sourcing when critical systems fail. Replacing components, and more so complete machines, is costly not only in the purchase of physical assets, but also in labour and downtime. The longer a machine can operate at its optimum level, the lower the cost of ownership.

Although hardware dominates the OT space, software is still very prevalent in more modern machinery, but comes with many limitations. Many machines, particularly those from the last decade or two, still require some form of processing to allow them to operate. For instance, robots on the production line require a PLC, or control device, to tell it how to operate — turn, rotate, pick up, connect — all these commands require some computing power to process and deliver to the machine in a particular order. Traditionally, vendors create and distribute their own proprietary software and protocols, Siemens Profinet / Profibus being examples of this, which not only locks hardware owners to one vendor, but can also be very costly as further software is often needed just to program the PLC. There are ways to combat the limits of vendor-specific protocols, such as Moxa’s protocol conversion tools which convert vendor protocols into the more universal Modus protocol, but again, more expense is incurred and the result is generally isolated to a single machine.

How does IT differ from OT?

If you ask someone what OT stands for, very few could answer. On the other hand, IT is a lot more prevalent in today’s world. Information Technology, or IT, is all about data, through collection, analysis and reporting, and the protection of that data and where and how it is distributed. With OT, data comes from individual machines, but in the IT space there are a lot more users involved in creating, entering and maintaining the data; meaning access, data monitoring and security are all aspects far more prevalent in IT when compared to the OT environment.

If we look back 15 or so years, much (or most) data generated by OT machinery was limited either to the machine itself, or at best the LAN it was connected to, whereas IT communication technology has been distributing information around the world for decades of course, via the internet.

Perhaps the most important distinction between IT and OT can be explained in hardware vs software. In the OT space, hardware is king, with countless devices, robots and machines produced to do individual tasks. OT software, however, is very limited in its scope, normally able to run a small number of necessary functions required to operate the machinery. IT is the exact opposite; hardware is far more generic, yet software is far more comprehensive. For instance, industrial computers, as long as they are technically adequate, can run a multitude of applications. Communications devices are relatively simple from a hardware perspective but vary hugely in their software capabilities. The task orientation for OT is hardware, and for IT it is software.

Lifespan and longevity is also different for IT applications. Where OT relies on stable, long-lifetime products and components, IT has to work differently. Technology moves at a fast pace, and with this development comes different opportunities… and threats. As new UIs and processing software becomes available, upgrades can sometimes only be facilitated with upgrade to operating systems, CPUs and other hardware. Security measures can be upgraded to meet the current requirements but can also fall within the scope of having to upgrade to the latest hardware technologies. IT lifetimes are a balance between stable, long-term platforms and scope to upgrade and replace with minimum downtime.

The benefits of converging OT with IT

As we have mentioned previously, traditional OT installations may still farm data, but until recently this data has rarely ventured outside the local machinery. With the surge of devices aimed at the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), the harvesting, analysis and reporting on this data has opened the doors to transparency and control not seen before in industrial environments, and with the addition of cloud-based data storage, national and international data can be monitored and acted upon in real time.

OT to IT convergence allows more effective collaboration between various operations in businesses, for instance, connecting manufacturing to engineering, and then on to sales. Transparency and reporting on the production line gives the sales department the tools to manage customer expectations. Similarly, if a customer requests a change in specification, this can be delivered immediately and acted upon by the manufacturing team, rather than a more manual process which is prone to human error. Automatic alerts can be sent from inspection robots to engineering to highlight a run of defects which could be caused by malfunctioning machinery further down the production line. If this information can be pushed to the relevant departments in real time, they can be acted upon quickly, minimising waste and downtime.

Asset management is another useful tool available to OT/IT integrated systems. A fleet of freezer trucks could be fitted with gateways / IoT devices, which transmit both GPS data and temperatures of their freezer units to a central control room. This gives full visibility of the location of all units, along with complete traceability on the temperature of the freezer unit throughout its whole journey, allowing for accurate delivery estimates to customers and reporting on temperatures to mitigate temperature-related liability after delivery.

Predictive maintenance is one of the key benefits of integrating IT technology into legacy OT machinery. A great example we’ve seen at Impulse is the integration of a small device, no bigger than a matchbox, into legacy lathes used in metal machining. These tiny devices simply stick to the outside of the machine and monitor acoustic levels and temperature, alerting operators of a change in either of these. These changes indicate vibration or wear, and allow maintenance to replace components nearing their end of life before they fail. Predictive maintenance is one of the most popular uses of IT in the OT space, as it both removes the need for routine maintenance and cursory checks and minimises downtime by alerting of impending issues before they occur.

Finally, Overall Equipment Effectiveness, or OEE, is a popular method of monitoring the health and effectiveness of OT machinery. The method is to analyse three key components of the machine’s operation and use them to form a figure of efficiency: availability, or the amount of uptime the machine has had over a certain time period, performance, which is denoted by the speed in which a machine is able to perform its function, and quality, which is generally a comparison of good to bad output per unit, or the “first pass yield”. OEE is calculated by multiplying these three values together, which gives equipment owners and operators the ability to tweak processes, alter operation, and make hardware adjustments, with a view to improving this figure and seeing it happen in real time. By improving the OEE value of one or more machines, the productivity and efficiency of the overall production facility is therefore increased.

There are various applications and methods to calculate this OEE value. For instance, Moxa’s UC8112 ARM-based embedded PC runs their ThingsPro software, which essentially uses Python applications to bridge the gap between OT hardware and sensors, and reporting and maintenance UIs. Of course, Python applications can be developed to run on a raw Linux installation without the need for any third-party software, but what ThingsPro brings is a templated system which can be accessed via Python code, which does the hard work of connecting to IO, creating tags and more users, straight out of the box. With increased data transfer comes increased security risks.

When physical machinery can be hacked, that’s when things can become dangerous, so OT networks need to be protected in just the same way as the most sensitive of data. There are many processes, barriers and security measures that can be put in place, down to a simple locking mechanism on the PC itself, but OT / IT security goes much further than physical access. You can learn more about how to secure your OT network from the Impulse knowledge base, where we highlight some of the key physical and software barriers that can be put in place when securing an OT network.

In summary

Bridging the gap between OT machinery and IT data tools can do nothing but improve productivity and efficiency. From a simple sensor through to a full suite of devices, taking measures to improve transparency and monitoring of OT devices opens the door to much more efficient operating procedures, the end product being a potential reduction in overheads and downtime.

*Matt Lundberg is technical lead at Industrial IoT, Impulse Embedded