On the same page

Many plant-floor engineers and IT technicians report they’re coming to a new appreciation of the efficiencies and savings that can be generated by simply integrating their industrial and corporate networks.

By Jim Montague

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Jim Montague, Executive EditorBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Oil and water don’t mix—without help. So, after you give up on shaking the bottle, you may learn that adding a little mustard will yield a nicely blended vinaigrette salad dressing. As mutual friends in the food processing field can confirm, just a little dab of a good emulsifier can make a big difference.

Why the cooking lesson? Well, plant-floor engineers and IT technicians have long been thought of as unmixable, too—more like opposing magnet poles, especially when they’re alleged co-workers. Sadly, large organizations in which one hand doesn’t know what the other is doing are common, and intramural/interdepartmental warfare often is more bitter than competition between companies and other organizations. Most murders occur within families, etc.

However, recent industrial networking trends are revealing some unexpected adaptations. I tripped over several surprises when researching this issue’s “Come Together” cover story on network integration.   

As plant-floor networks begin to establish more links with their corporate/environmental counterparts, the job descriptions of the people who set up and maintain both worlds are involuntarily evolving and overlapping as well. Sometimes these links originate in plant-floor devices with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses reaching up, while others might come from a few users snaking a facility/environmental Ethernet cable out to monitor a production line. No matter who talks first, however, these conversations and binding ties are increasing.

Why now? Previous pleas for cooperation—shaking the bottle—mostly were ignored. That’s what usually happens to appeals to reason and altruism. Don’t feel bad though. The hard way almost always is the only way. This latest foot-dragging reminds me of many of the early objections to Ethernet, which claimed it wasn’t deterministic enough and prone to broadcast storms, until a few gateways and switches quieted these early, unfair criticisms.

So, watch out—here comes your mustard—though it may look like a kick in the pants. Sources tell me it begins with one or a combination of a few crashed applications, a few hours of downtime, a few days seeking IP password authorizations from remote IT providers, and a week or two of manually scrubbing viruses from PCs. It ends with plant-floor and IT staffs jabbering away like long lost buddies. Turns out managers and clients screaming bloody murder are a fine emulsifier, too. Nothing like a genuine threat of death and dismemberment to get you motivated, get organizational goals realigned and running in parallel, and get everyone reading from the same hymnal. Hallelujah!

Though there are plenty of firewalls, DMZs, and network evaluation tools, it’s these new best friends that many plant and IT network managers say are the key to keeping their integrated networks up and running safely and securely. A well-tested firewall won’t provide security if it isn’t turned on (I came up with that one myself). That’s why experienced network users report that they’ve learned to include a wider circle of their interdepartmental colleagues and their expertise and tools in a jointly developed and accepted security policy, and then train themselves and everyone else in their organizations until performing basic security procedures becomes a second-nature reflex.

Given the control and automation field’s extreme focus on technological solutions, it can be slightly startling to hear engineers rhapsodizing on the advantages of basic human cooperation. Many plant-floor engineers and IT technicians report they’re coming to a new appreciation of the solid efficiencies and savings that can be generated by simply talking to each other, and integrating their minds while working on integrating their industrial and corporate networks. In the cover story, end users at Colorado Springs Utilities report that their plant/IT collaboration and integrated network is even being used to report back to the plant-floor with streamlined work orders, which allow their plants to be operated on a more unmanned basis, and assist preventive maintenance efforts.

The attraction and strength of cooperation is its reliance on agreed-upon truth, which gets everyone on the same page, and allows real progress to occur. Two heads are better than one, but one network is better than several. Pass the salad bowl. Now where’s my fork?

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