Convergence considerations

10 May 2021

Control Engineering Europe finds out what technologies and innovations are needed to make OT/IT convergence a reality for manufacturers.

John Browett, general manager at CLPA Europe believes that to set up a solid foundation for IT/OT convergence, companies need to implement an enabling technology that can help integrate manufacturing systems with IT systems, such as the cloud. This, he says is Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN).

“The creation of futureproof, smart, flexible and responsive manufacturing operations requires the breakdown of the silos that have traditionally separated areas on the factory floor and the IT and OT worlds by restricting the flow of data, information and decisions,” said Browett. “In effect, in a connected industry, knowledge must be able to circulate from the factory floor, to the enterprise and vice versa. Only in this way is it possible to give both IT and OT teams the tools to operate in each other’s world to help unlock valuable data-driven insights.”

Browett goes on to point out that the necessary level of data availability and transparency can only be achieved by creating seamless interconnection within the entire enterprise. Therefore, he says that the ideal communications infrastructure should be able to accommodate the secure, reliable and timely transfer of IT and OT information on a single network. “This is known as network convergence. In terms of key features, this means utilising a technology with sufficient bandwidth and TSN capabilities. 

“By maximising Ethernet bandwidth, companies can make sure that their systems can handle the large volumes of data generated by OT and IT ecosystems. TSN complements this by replacing multiple networks with just one where multiple traffic types can be shared. Data are converged together and hence a converged network is achieved,” continues Browett. In this way the difficulty in accessing information shared across multiple different networks can be removed and transparency is increased. 

TSN is enabled by a new set of IEEE standards that add deterministic capabilities to standard Ethernet. By synchronising time across the network, latency and jitter can be precisely controlled to allow traffic to flow in a predictable or deterministic manner. By combining this with a mechanism to prioritise access to the network, multiple types of dissimilar traffic can now all share the same network architecture. However, it is important to remember that TSN only controls the transport of the data and not what it means, so higher-level application protocols are still required. 

In any case, this solution allows companies to move all their communications over a single network architecture while maintaining, if not enhancing, performance. Since the flow of data in and out of processes can now be simplified, this in turn allows businesses to fully reap the benefits of OT/IT convergence and the in-depth, holistic knowledge generated, unveiling substantial productivity and efficiency gains.

According to Browett, the only network technology that can currently satisfy the needs for large bandwidth and TSN is CC-Link IE TSN. This open industrial Ethernet communication technology supports transmission speeds of 1 Gbps, time synchronisation and traffic prioritisation. Businesses interested in adopting CC-Link IE TSN technology to support the IT/OT convergence can already benefit from compatible products and solutions from leading automation vendors. 

Asking the right questions
When we think about the digital transformation, and in particular the required convergence between IT and OT systems, most of the discussion to date has been about the ‘how’ – focusing on the challenge of integrating different purpose networks. Bridging that gap is very much a technology matter, but it raises some interesting questions that can impact the whole enterprise and the success of the digital transformation. 

For example, where is data best handled, and what are the cybersecurity implications? How can backwards compatibility be addressed to take maximum advantage of older systems? And how can data best be used to optimise production, taking full advantage of both real-time information and historical analysis? According to Piotr Siwek, EMEA Deputy Marketing Director, Factory Automation at Mitsubishi Electric Europe determining the best answers to these questions requires a look at the relative strengths of edge computing and the cloud, and how these platforms can and should be employed together to optimise manufacturing operations. He argues that modern manufacturing needs both edge and cloud concepts to work hand in hand – getting this balance right is now one of the key considerations in IT/OT convergence.

“Edge computing has become an extremely important strategy in realising data analytics, offering a low latency solution where quick decision making is critical,” said Siwek. “It is especially helpful in brownfield applications, providing local integration with the control system. This allows the operations – even of older generations of equipment – to be analysed with advanced data science strategies.” 

At the same time, cloud computing provides many advantages on its own, particularly for highly complex and sophisticated data analytics, where users can take advantage of virtually unlimited resources and train almost infinitely complex deep learning models. 

“The edge and cloud computing are concepts that can frequently deliver the greatest benefits for manufacturing when they are working hand in hand,” continued Siwek. With that in mind, he believes that the key to successful IT/OT convergence is to identify the benefits of each area, and then to provide data, hardware and software integration between them.

Technology will always be a driving force in enabling IT/OT convergence, but businesses that derive the greatest benefits are those that are absolutely clear on exactly what they are trying to achieve. By defining those goals well, the OT and IT systems will work hand in hand. 

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