Manufacturers and industrial operators rely on Operational Technology (OT) solutions to run design and production processes. In the race toward digital transformation, the conversation about Information Technology (IT) and OT convergence is gaining steam, driven by the need to break down technological silos and strategically leverage digital capabilities.
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Technology Providers Play a Role in Accelerating IT and OT Convergence
The growing demand for Artificial Intelligence (AI) solutions and the proliferation of Internet of Things (IoT) devices have re-ignited the conversation about Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) convergence, especially in the manufacturing and industrial automation space. Manufacturers and industrial operators have started exploring use cases involving AI and Machine Learning (ML), smart IoT, and 5G as part of their strategic digital capabilities.
OT providers such as ABB, Siemens, and Hexagon have traditionally been well established in providing solutions such as Product Lifecycle Management (PLM), assent performance monitoring, and Computer-Aided Design (CAD), all of which are solutions that play a big role in the operations of manufacturers and industrial operators. Increasingly, ABI Research is seeing cloud hyperscalers partnering with these OT providers by providing IT solutions and platforms that facilitate data management, enable cloud-native applications, and improve decision-making.
Siemens’ Xcelerator digital business platform, hosted on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) marketplace provides tools and solutions that help companies build more efficient product designs, enhance manufacturing capabilities, and continuously improve products and production using data and analytics. ABB is working with Microsoft to bring generative AI capabilities into its industrial digital solutions, enabling intuitive user interaction, and further enhancing the value and efficiency of contextualized data.
Unlocking the Benefits of IT and OT Convergence
The convergence of IT and OT promises the balance of on-premises control with the scale and flexibility of new cloud technologies such as edge computing and hybrid cloud. For example, a converged IT and OT solution can look like this in a manufacturing plant:
- OT Applications: PLM solutions, process control systems, and Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) systems are deployed close to the factory floor and are used to monitor production performance, collect data for analysis, and maintain high performance and efficiency.
- Edge Computing: Introduce cloud-like tools and devices to be deployed in the manufacturing facility, providing better network connectivity and real-time analytical computations, resulting in faster and more accurate decision-making.
- Cloud Platform: Cloud hyperscalers enable adding or removing compute resources depending on business needs. Manufacturers can also leverage cloud-based AI/ML tools to analyze large volumes of data to make informed decisions.
IT and OT convergence can have a significant impacts on productivity and efficiency, including the following:
- Accelerating Digital Transformation: Manufacturers are looking to digitally transform their operations, and the convergence of IT and OT solutions can enable them to embrace technologies such as AI/ML, predictive maintenance, and automated planning/scheduling.
- Increasing Competitive Advantage: Bringing IT and OT together enhances a manufacturer’s competitive advantage by being able to respond to changing market conditions quicker, offer better quality products, and ultimately satisfy customer needs.
- Better Decision-Making: IT and OT convergence enable manufacturers to have a full view of their business operations. Data that are collected from the IT and OT solutions can be combined and analyzed to gain better insights, which can, in turn, allow for real-time decision-making and continuous improvement processes.
Cloud technology will play a central role in accelerating IT and OT convergence, providing access to innovation, remote collaboration, scalability, and resiliency. OT solutions should leverage edge computing deployments as a bridge toward cloud platforms, transforming and improving conventional OT operating models.
Successful IT/OT Operating Model Will Require Cultural and Technological Investment
Often, IT and OT solutions solve very different challenges and business needs. Hence, it can be argued that IT and OT solutions can vary widely in architecture and standards. Some of the challenges when it comes to IT and OT convergence include fragmented data silos housed within each IT and OT platform, huge legacy infrastructure that is difficult and costs a lot to maintain, and integration complexities that will require a high degree of resource and monetary investment.
ABI Research believes the convergence of IT and OT will gather pace and unlock many benefits. However, to ensure a successful IT/OT operating model, it will be important for manufacturers and industrial operators to keep the below in mind:
- Clear Strategy and Roadmap: Before embarking on an IT/OT operating model, organizations should be able to clearly define the objectives and goals for the implementation, develop a roadmap that includes strategic guidelines and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and obtain top-level executive sponsorships to help drive this initiative from a top-down approach. For example, identifying cloud platforms that can support data lakes will be crucial. The ability to combine data silos from IT and OT solutions for productivity analytics and application maintenance should be a big part of the strategy and roadmap design process.
- Start Small: It is important to start with a use case or pilot project that can solve a pressing business need, even if the pilot environment or data quality is less than satisfactory. The emphasis of the use case or pilot project is on experimenting and implementing a solution that can scale to a full deployment in the future. For example, in a mining environment use case, identifying IoT devices such as mobile and optical equipment and integrating edge platform capabilities such as real-time data processing and analytics can scale to the wider business operations once tangible outcomes have been derived from the convergence of IT and OT.
- Partner with Subject Matter Experts: IT/OT operating models are complex integrations that will require external expertise. Having strong relationships with both the IT and OT solution providers will ensure adequate support and attention is given to ensure a successful deployment. External partners should also be willing to provide skill transfers to in-house employees. This will be crucial for continuous and future operating model improvements. For example, identifying OT solutions providers that have demonstrated capability in deploying cloud platforms or working with an IT system integrator that specializes in industries that typically involve large-scale OT implementations can be the first step toward an IT/OT operating model.
The advancements in IT and OT technology have allowed manufacturers to further evolve. Cloud applications can enable manufacturers and industrial operators to access useful insights. While deploying cloud applications is not the be-all, end-all, having an IT/OT operating model is the first step in truly breaking down technological silos and harnessing the combined benefits of IT solutions and OT productivity and efficiency.