Enabling a digital manufacturing transformation

13 May 2019

Control Engineering Europe spoke to Matt Wells, VP digital product management at GE Digital about the trends towards convergence of Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) domains, as a key to enable digital transformation across the enterprise.

Q: In reality, how easy is the industrial sector finding the task of bringing operational technology and information technology departments closer together?
This is more than a technology challenge. We have found – through our own experience in GE and within many of our customers – that new technology means changing the way that people work. Doing that successfully takes real leadership and regular communications to help employees engage and understand what is changing, and why. We often find though – once employees have experienced the benefits of tools like our Manufacturing Execution System (Predix MES) – that they are really happy. From an operators’ perspective we streamline processes, remove the amount of paper circulating around the production line, and reduce the amount of painful rework that can result from human error.

Q: In your experience what are the main challenges to IT/OT convergence?
The main challenges to IT/OT convergence revolve around the different perspectives on what are the most important drivers of a solution. For example, the OT domain will often favour reliability and access protection whereas the IT domain will favour manageability and data protection. OT staff want mission critical systems installed at each plant whereas IT staff want mission critical systems installed in a data center. Bringing these two teams together in any project is critical not only for its success but for its ability to scale across an entire enterprise. Q: Cybersecurity has been touted as being a big challenge to successful IT/OT convergence – what advice can you offer on this issue? Cybersecurity is a fact of life in the digital world, just as physical security is a fact of life in the real world. Organisations that are successful in managing the security of their systems are those that understand every potential risk at every level of the software and hardware systems they run. Companies should look for solutions where cybersecurity is ‘baked in’ – like an immune system – so, if there is a failure on stopping a virus from getting in, there are still checks internally to address issues should that happen.

Q: How far along the convergence route is industry today and what are the main differences in the two domains currently?
Convergence between OT and IT is increasing in pace but there is still a significant way to go. Over the last decade we have seen an acceleration of the adoption of digital technologies, but those advances have typically been very siloed. What we are seeing now – especially with cloud-based solutions – is software that brings together data from multiple systems, and analytics that draw from multiple datasets – so that leaders can increasingly see both the big picture and the details almost effortlessly. Yet for many it is still early days – we are seeing that the industries that are making the biggest investments are the ones that are being forced to find smarter, safer ways of doing things – but leaders in every industry are making big investments in order to adapt to volatile markets. Q: Is there any particular industry sector that is leading the way in IT/OT convergence? If so why is this, and what learnings could these industries provide for other, not so far advanced industry sectors? Companies that are investing in the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are leading the way in IT/OT convergence and it is the manufacturing sector that is leading the way here. In particular, I see a broad range of companies in chemicals; food & beverage and consumer packaged goods; and in the automotive sector that are pushing hard to rethink how to manage data and drive innovation from the shop floor to the enterprise and supply change. I think the key learning is to dream big but execute small projects to start driving specific value first.

Q: The factory floor is already adopting Ethernet technologies and there are less and less distributed control systems now running on proprietary networks and computers so what work is there still left to do to reap the benefits of a smart, connected enterprise?
Ethernet or not, when it comes to the control network, there is still much distrust of the cloud which inhibits rapid development of smart, connected enterprise. OT departments need to be able to trust IT departments and vendors to enable innovation without compromising security.

Q: What is GE Digital’s vision of a future smart, connected enterprise and how might this change the role of the control engineer, or the engineering skillsets required to keep plants and systems running efficiently and safely and to minimise downtimes?
Smart, connected enterprises are not a means to an end. Industry suffers from huge amounts of waste – energy, raw materials, and time – and software can help to reduce that waste significantly. GE Digital provides software that analyses and translates industrial data into powerful business outcomes. What does that mean for control engineer? First of all, work closely with your IT colleagues – they don’t understand your physical assets, but they are trying to help them work better so collaborate. At the same time, software skills are going to be the career defining capabilities for control engineers. From our experience – and based on feedback from our customers – it is easier to take an engineer and train them in data science than the other way round. The most successful control engineers will be the ones that embrace digital solutions to deliver real outcomes – a learning mindset will help them adapt as the technology evolves. 


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