Information technology and operations technology are unlikely candidates for a successful marriage. But to ensure that manufacturers thrive in the digital age, OT and IT must find ways to work together—or to at least, as on Tinder, swipe right to indicate interest.
Some people are encouraged, seeing signs of improvement.
“I think it’s improved, but there still is a ways to go,” said Joe Gerstl, director of product management at GE Digital. “Terminology and understanding are big things. OT understands flow of product through the factory, all the nuances with the data and structures very well. IT still has a challenge there. It comes back to lacking a deep knowledge of the manufacturing process.”
As a mirror of the integration beginning to happen within factories, traditional OT companies are joining forces with traditional IT companies to create software and systems to help power this transformation. In 2017, Gartner predicted that by 2020, 50 percent of OT service providers will create key partnerships with IT-centric providers for IoT offerings.
Rockwell Automation and PTC began working together last year with a strategic alliance. Other partnerships and acquisitions include Dassault Systèmes/ABB, Bentley/Siemens and SAP/Siemens.
Even Kristian Steenstrup, fellow emeritus at Gartner and the one who made the 2020 forecast, is impressed with the speed of these partnerships.
“With the movement toward operating companies aligning IT and OT internally, we have seen the same patterns among vendors,” he said. “An unexpected outcome is that degree to which OT companies have acquired IT vendors to bolster their capabilities. All are building hybrid IT/OT solutions pre-integrated to help their clients achieve integration of plant floor and field equipment with back-office IT systems.”
These partnerships, acquisitions and alliances are yielding benefits.
“This partnership helps our customers accelerate the time to value of their automation system with analytics,” Jessica Kourakos of Rockwell Automation said of the Rockwell-PTC strategic alliance. “We’re able to create apps in a fraction of time to solve business problems. That’s a huge value, not only to us but also to our customers who may want to develop specific apps for themselves.”
She compared this alignment to when Apple opened its ecosystem to the world.
“Once Apple allowed companies to build on their technology, they became even more successful,” Kourakos said. “When they were just a PC company without an ecosystem, they were much more limited in their success.”
With this alliance, “we’re creating our own ecosystems between PTC and Rockwell where customers can create all these business apps to provide insight to the factory floor worker and the plant manager, as well as to the C suite,” she said.
“As customers build more models and new applications using the building blocks inside of FactoryTalk Innovation Suite to analyze and derive real business insights from the manufacturing data, the more successful we should be, as well,” Kourakos added.
The alliance has helped both Rockwell and PTC expand their scope.
Before joining with Rockwell, PTC’s customer base focused mainly on discrete manufacturing for aerospace, defense and medical equipment, said Howard Heppelmann, general manger of connected solutions at PTC and CEO Jim Heppelmann’s brother.
Since then, PTC has expanded to mining, oil and gas, food and beverage and pharmaceuticals.
“PTC historically is an IT software company,” he said. “Rockwell brings deep, 100-year-old roots in the OT space. The alliance is an interesting and complementary blending of cultures and experiences that help the other dive deeper into sectors that complement each other’s strengths. If you’re a large company with hundreds of sites—whether you’re making candy or planes, trains and automobiles—you’re interested in getting to a place where you have a digitally integrated, analytics-driven operation.”
Every alliance doesn’t need to resemble Rockwell-PTC, but such alliances will be key moving forward, Heppelmann said.
Going for ‘set it and forget it’
To help in communication between the IT and OT sides of the manufacturing plant, some companies also are working to translate OT data for IT. No deep knowledge of the manufacturing process required.
“We provided the Rosetta Stone,” Gerstl said. “We built it into our system. You set it and forget it.”
With Predix Manufacturing Data Cloud (MDC) in place, IT gets only the OT data it needs and in an easily understandable format. For example, instead of dozens of tables to pull data from, IT now receives data about the location, duration and reason related to factory downtime with all the context in place.
“We’ve denormalized the data, put it in a NoSQL (non-sequential) data structure,” Gerstl said. “What IT gets is all the context. They don’t have to know all the intimate details and structure of that data. They don’t care. They don’t get it. And they don’t live it every day. Any business intelligence tool that has the ability to read data via REST APIs can get to this data, then extract the data they need because it’s denormalized. Instead of 12 spreadsheets, one for each factory, the entire enterprise can be analyzed in a single BI tool with a few mouse clicks.”
Here are two examples of MDC in action, Gerstl said.
- A manufacturer with 50 plants, all running GE’s Plant Apps, wants cost variances between products across the entire enterprise. Since Plant Apps is a transactional database designed for fast inserts and updates, the data amounts to 12 tables that IT has to join, then de-normalize into a spreadsheet or database for the VP every day. With MDC, the IT user or even the VP can use a tool like Power BI to point to the data already in the format he needs to report on and quickly build out the needed charts, graphs and reports.
- Envision that, of those 50 plants, Plant 5 makes raw material that is shipped to Plant 8. When a quality problem is found in products made at Plant 8, how does the VP of quality track back to learn that the problem is caused by a raw material used to make the intermediate product at Plant 5? When that quality problem arises in a plant using Predix MDC, MDC quickly integrates and analyzes data from multiple sources and systems to identify the raw material causing the problem, GE said. Without it, the same person has a lot of work to do and needs an intimate knowledge of the data from the OT personnel.
Playing well with others
Increasingly, these new systems work with legacy equipment and do not require end users to update all plant software to a new system.
GE’s Predix Manufacturing Data Cloud (MDC) provides a single view of operational data instead of a spider web of tables, Gerstl said.
Rockwell’s software also plays well with others.
“With this solution that sits on top of the PLC environment, we can actually sell to customers where Rockwell is not the predominant PLC environment,” Kourakos said. “We are able to sit on top of Siemens and Emerson PLC environments. We don’t think you have to have one model from end to end. We believe that you should be able to keep what you own and augment with technology where you have potential gaps. You can have a seamless integration across a broad list of ‘best of’ providers.”
Connectivity, speed, ease of use and scaling also are important considerations.
“We got ahead of the connectivity issue when we acquired (the software firm) Kepware four years ago,” Heppelmann said. “We saw connectivity as a critical issue to where we wanted to go with our IoT strategy platform. We now have a technology portfolio that includes 150 drivers for every device protocol—every device in a factory.”
Kepware is easy to use and integrates quickly, he said. An experienced user comes up to speed in as little as 15 minutes while a less experienced controls engineer might need an hour or two to deploy the software. Once deployed, Kepware can scale across 100 sites in two or three hours.
The Rockwell-PTC alliance creates the infrastructure and analytic solutions that are easy to use to solve specific problems, Kourakos said.
“Apps in the manufacturing world are not pretty, and they’re hard to read if you’re not accustomed to that world,” she said. “With our system, you can create apps that look and work like they could be on an iPhone, an iPad. They’re easy to understand and easy for users to manipulate. We want to make it simple.”
More IT/OT integration successes are happening first across the power/utility sector and then in the asset-intensive industries in manufacturing, as well as mining, oil and gas and rail, Steenstrup said.
Misunderstandings can get in the way
Challenges remain, he said. IT/OT alignment, an internal governance issue, must happen before IT/OT integration, which can be provided externally by partnerships between IT and OT companies.
But alignment must come first. Although joint offerings are important, internal change needs to happen to make progress toward success. In fact, a joint offering of a hybrid solution may fall on deaf ears if the client is at odds with itself or in a quiet state of civil war, Steenstrup said.
“The main challenges are internal cultural separation and misunderstandings,” he said. “Within any company, engineers—electrical, mechanical, civil and chemical—will have a perspective on what good looks like and (will have) values that are at odds with the innate culture and methodology of IT. Both need to adapt to the other for true alignment and integration. But unfortunately in many companies ingrained attitudes and fear of change will hold them back.”