Name an iconic duo: Tom and Jerry, Batman and Robin, Mario and Luigi. There are just some of the world’s favourite pairs, and not forgetting Ant and Dec. However, many people wouldn’t add Information Technology (IT) and Operational Technology (OT) to their list of favourite duos, but the convergence of the two has revolutionised the modern factory. Adrian Swindells, Director of industrial computing specialist Distec, looks at how plant managers can implement IT and OT together, without any drawbacks.
Most people in industry have heard of the convergence of IT and OT. IT, which includes computers, storage and networking devices, is used to monitor electronic data. OT, which is traditionally used in industrial environments, covers industrial control systems such as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. Plant managers are increasingly blurring the line between the two technologies, with equipment traditionally found in offices being used to monitor data in factories.
This increased data allows both plant operatives and plant managers to more closely monitor production lines, both in terms of throughput and maintenance. For example, industrial PCs can be programmed to pop up a message if a piece of equipment, such as a pump, has been constantly running for a set period of time. This gives engineers chance to check the machine for signs of wear or imminent breakdown. This preventative maintenance approach is much more cost effective than reactive maintenance, when materials or labour may either not be available or may come at a premium.
For plant managers, IT systems allow them to export factory data to their office and use it to make strategic decisions. For example, they can view data that allows them to predict if they are on track to meet production targets or to meet shipping deadlines for an order. If this is not the case, plant managers can then view more detailed data to determine why.
Despite all the advantages of the convergence of IT and OT, plant managers need to take into account that much of the equipment used in IT applications was not originally designed for use in the industrial environment.
PCs, for example, must be industrial grade to protect them against dirt, grease and washdown. This means that plant managers will need to specify a device with sufficient ingress protection, such as the IP65 rated Nexcom industrial PCs offered by Distec, to ensure reliable performance. The IP65 rating of these PCs means the front panel protects the PC against dust and low pressure water jets.
While enterprise PCs often use the latest operating systems, most industrial PCs are still using the Windows 7 operating system. To maintain regularity across a plant, companies need to work with Microsoft-partnered industrial PC suppliers who can continue to sell the legacy systems that may no longer be available on commercial PCs.
Personnel can also be an issue in the convergence of IT and OT. Often, IT buyers may not be sensitive to the requirements of plant operatives and may not consider the practicalities of use, but plant operatives may similarly fail to engage with new IT systems in plants.
It is important to have a strong consultative process with both parties when bringing in new equipment. Companies should purchase from computing specialists with industrial experience, like Distec, who can help companies choose equipment that works for everyone.
While plant managers and operatives can reap the benefits of the convergence of IT and OT, they may not be aware of some issues that are presented by using systems in factories that were previously not intended for such use. By consulting with an industrial PC specialist, companies can make IT and OT their new favourite duo.