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Zoom up and out from control

June 17, 2021
Just as 'Rome wasn't built in a day,' today's streamlined IIoT tools must still be tailored to fit the needs of the individual processes where they're deployed
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Learn more on how to optimize with the Industrial Internet of Things in the series.

Even with all of its new capabilities, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) still requires users to exercise practice and patience to successfully meet the needs of individual process applications, optimize production and deliver benefits to their larger enterprises.

"Many people and organizations are interested in IIoT, Industry 4.0 and smart manufacturing, but there's this misperception that a lot of companies are further along than they really are. We're making progress, but the reality is there's still much to learn, and most of the wins are still in the future," says Jacob Chapman, industrial IT and cybersecurity director at Grantek, a CSIA-certified system integrator and business consultant with offices in the U.S. and Canada. "For example, we recently did a IIoT pilot project with a steel manufacturer that wanted to host its production and shop-floor data in a cloud-based infrastructure. However, its different processes and plants were running and collecting data in different ways, so they needed a common, unified solution. We gathered requirements from which business value could be extracted, and developed technical specs for the new system. They set a multi-tiered plan, and adopted Ignition web-based SCADA software from Inductive Automation in each facility and in conjunction with their cloud-computing service."

Chapman adds the steelmaker wanted to compare machine-to-machine performance, but expand beyond that to compare facility-to-facility performance, and improve overall business planning by adding enterprise resource planning (ERP) data, such as real-time scrap, ordering and other reporting from operations. "Some PLC data is included, but this was less about the controls aspect, and more about comparing processes and sites," says Chapman. "This is why the user added Ignition's overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and manufacturing execution system (MES) modules over the Internet to the cloud. The pilot was tested, and is expected to rollout to five plants."

Know thy foundation 

In general, Chapman reports that IIoT builds on top of existing operations, controls and existing industrial IT infrastructure, so this foundation must be assessed before trying to add new systems and capabilities. "One plant may have limited connectivity within the OT environment compared to another plant, so they'll need to build up their networks and security before linking to IIoT and elsewhere," says Chapman. "Once the necessary connections are made, users must also arrange to make them cyber-secure and maintain them over time. Likewise, OT needs to learn the information technology (IT) skills they'll need before deploying IIoT, cloud computing or other virtual systems."

Beyond checking their own networks and computing infrastructure before adding IIoT, Chapman explains that users should also benchmark where they're at versus the likely capabilities of their competitors, and add that evaluation to their long-term plan. "A major miss is that many users and organizations only look at their next task, and paint themselves into a corner, instead of looking five or 10 years ahead, and asking what they need to do to get there," he says. "So, if you have IIoT or cloud-computing aspirations, you need to see the whole journey, including current and likely business problems, and what capabilities will be needed to solve them. For example, instead of deploying bare-bones connectivity infrastructure to put in a basic cloud deployment now, invest in proper networking this year that will set you up for success with cloud deployments and beyond next year."

Of course, managers and executives need to be part of any IIoT project or other long-term planning. "Awareness and education around best practices varies greatly within management teams.  Sometimes they have an understanding of what they want and generally how they should get there, but today’s systems are so complicated that that’s usually not the case. The biggest obstacle to IIoT projects is human understanding and the ability to justify the project across all stakeholders," says Chapman. "Many people, especially engineers, oversimplify the complexity of IIoT systems and believe they can implement it by themselves, instead of engaging partners or outsiders. However, no one can know everything, so before starting an IIoT project, they need candid and continued discussion—and not just sales talk—about what IIoT can do for their processes and business, as well as what it will require from their people and organization."

Cybersecurity always close by  

Not surprisingly, every IIoT project must address cybersecurity because every new network link represents another potential avenue for probes, intrusions and cyber-attacks.

"When programmable logic controllers (PLC) were introduced decades ago, some folks resisted that innovation and didn't want to adopt them," says Chapman. "However, their value to the business made adoption inevitable, and users learned to handle the requirements and risks that went with them, such as learning new technical skills and implementing new safety configurations. Similarly, when IIoT arrived, there are some that resist it because its benefits are also accompanied by some new problems, especially cybersecurity risks and requirements."

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While every plant, cloud and business connection poses risk, Chapman adds the big challenge is that users typically don't have the right mindset about cybersecurity, and need to think of it like environmental and process safety. "The industrial IT space is complicated, so we try to break it down into three areas: network infrastructure, computing infrastructure and ICS cybersecurity," he explains. "Thinking about cybersecurity like safety means there’s not an endpoint—it’s an ongoing effort and every person plays a part in the organization’s cybersecurity. Just like assessing before an IIoT or safety project, cybersecurity starts with understanding what’s on your network with an asset and vulnerability assessment, so we can figure out where to go and what to protect. This usually results in a long-term plan involving segmenting networks to reduce the consequences of an intrusion, improving access control by connecting SCADA systems to active directory, and adding suitable anomaly detection software."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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