Industrial data unlocks the promise of digital transformation

11 September 2023

While circumstances impact sectors differently, the most powerful differentiator behind every new opportunity is Artificial Intelligence (AI). It's what drives industrial machines to be more intelligent – producing data, identifying metrics and gaps, and generating actionable insights, says Marcel van Helten.

It’s an invigorating time for industrial enterprises in Europe. As organizations recover from the challenges of the pandemic, they’re seizing new opportunities and innovating to make processes greener, sustainable and more efficient. They’re finding ways to increase the resiliency and security of their operations amid trade pressures, inflation, and the war in Ukraine. Many are exploring new optimizations and automations to gain a competitive edge.

The pressure’s on to digitally transform and harness AI to forge ahead in the modern industrial landscape. Seizing the moment will bring added precision, clarity, and foresight to business decision-making to maximize production and value. The baseline for those discoveries is, of course, data. 

For industrial companies, this is where the dream of digital transformation dissolves into a series of question marks. The one I get from business owners every day is: “How can we get data from our industrial systems?” Those who run small-to-medium-sized operations have far-reaching goals, but with less capital to play with, the stakes are high.

Whatever the industry segment – be it factory automation, alternative energy, power, water, utilities, or transportation – digital transformation is more than a substantial investment. It’s a new technical frontier that brings its own challenges. Enterprises need cloud connectivity. They need to converge Operational Technology (OT) with Information Technology (IT). But for factories, vast field installations, and large industrial plants, this can be a messy business.

For industrial enterprises, digital transformation is not all ones and zeros, instant uploads, and seamless connectivity. There’s always the physical world to contend with. Industrial equipment might be bolted to factory floors in isolated regions or scattered through remote areas plagued by extreme weather. A single operation might encompass hundreds of pieces of legacy equipment in manufacturing facilities dotted across Europe and beyond. 

Cloud connections also introduce new security concerns. With cyberattacks on the rise, every new access point and network connection needs bullet-proof protection. 

Industrial companies are eager to embrace data and leverage digital tools to grow, learn, and scale. But to succeed, they need no-nonsense ways of extracting data from operational technology (OT) and putting it in the hands of the people who need it.

Tackling that first step 
As with most significant change opportunities, the first step is the hardest. It’s a challenge to access industrial data platforms from remote and rugged field sites. Any edge device and remote access platform worth the investment needs to be robust and resilient to survive those conditions and derive and deliver data in formats people can use. 

Furthermore, a lot of well-functioning industrial and manufacturing processes have evolved over decades. Most companies don’t have the luxury or, more importantly, the need to start over from scratch. Old machines and equipment that have stood the test of time are fixed to plant floors or humming along in the field alongside state-of-the-art equipment. That wild mix of legacy and new technology is commonplace. Manufacturer-independent retrofitting by powerful protocol conversion is needed to simplify data extraction and delivery. 

Complexities shouldn't stand in the way of innovation and modernization. Industrial companies need simple edge and remote access solutions that can speak across their systems, however varied, unique, or outdated. They need cloud connectors that put data at operator and decision-maker fingertips, allowing secure and real-time access to data through the cloud. Without cloud-enabled edge solutions, data stays locked away. Our mission is to unlock that data and make that first mile an easy one to cross.

Access, Connect, Visualize
OT and IT departments have traditionally had different priorities and strengths, but the right hardware and software configurations put them on the same path. Solutions portfolios that bring access, connectivity, and visualization together form the critical bridge between operations and information. 

For example, most industrial enterprises oversee decentralized assets. To derive insights, they need to access equipment installed on site and bring data securely to a central location. That might involve access to older controllers, remote brown- or greenfield sensors, actuators, or integration with multi-vendor environments.

Whether it’s robots in an automotive plant or wind turbines across a vast geographical area, those assets need to connect. Installations need ruggedized networking solutions and industrial Ethernet switches to direct and secure outgoing data without interruption. Once that reliability is achieved, those can plug into analytics engines and optimization programs to drive industrial efficiency. 

Finally, companies need to visualize data, to make it actionable on site and beyond. Operators need durable and flexible industrial panels to integrate data across multiple devices, protocols, and the cloud. These days, that means HMIs that are intuitive and easy to use, with scalable IIoT functionality and drag and drop capability. 

Securing remote access 
However, today’s challenges don’t end there. Remote access solutions must meet stringent security and regulatory requirements. That means OT needs stricter access control and new strategies to shield data and systems from attack.

Today’s IIoT solutions need security by design. Edge devices and routers that respond to modern cybersecurity issues support a layered security approach. With separate access routes and configurations for machine network (OT) access, corporate network (IT) access, and remote user access, they feature encryption, strict user authentication, outbound router connections, and regular perimeter testing.

A partner in industrial innovation
Red Lion has worked with industrial systems and data for 50 years. We’ve seen IT emerge, and we understand the evolving needs of both IT and OT audiences. For OT and IT to serve each other, enterprise connectivity solutions need to be simple to use, resilient, intuitive, and secure. They need to be durable and deployable right out of the box. The key to bridging the two perspectives is a platform that unites the features of OT and IT with maximum interoperability. 

Our all-in-one edge devices and remote access platform help businesses transform and thrive. OT equipment is what generates profit; its data needs to be made intelligible to decision-makers to unlock insights, improve productivity at the edge, and drive growth using the best that IT has to offer. Our expertise and solutions converge to serve this need. We connect customers to their data.

Companies across Europe are seizing the moment by investing in scalable, modular, and future-proof digital technology to make operational improvements.
The way industrial companies can get results from those investments is through data.

People who’ve worked in the industrial space for as long as we have are hardwired for different kinds of challenges and solutions. We’re entering an amazing new era of AI-powered productivity, but no matter how dazzling it might seem, data isn’t magic. 

Industrial companies need someone who understands the particularities of industrial data and can traverse that treacherous first step. They need someone who can access data in hard-to-reach spaces and from legacy technology that works well for a reason. They need someone who knows how to deliver that information efficiently, securely, and intact, to different communities of users.

Marcel van Helten is President at Red Lion Controls.

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