IT and OT workers require new skills to manage networked industrial control systems

Why manufacturers are having trouble finding workers with the skills and knowledge required to design, build, and maintain a smart, networked production system.

By Glenn Goldney, Rockwell Automation

Change is inevitable, but it’s not always easy. That’s certainly the case with smart manufacturing.

A growing number of manufacturers are adopting a smart-manufacturing approach to improve productivity and better face the pressures from new regulations, global supply-chain logistics and workforce skill gaps.

A truly “smart” manufacturing operation must be connected from the shop floor to the top floor across one plant or across multiple facilities. It also must be capable of seamlessly collecting, logging, and sharing production information across the entire manufacturing enterprise.

As a result, information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) systems that once were disparate are now combined into a single, unified network architecture known as the connected enterprise for greater connectivity and information-sharing. The IT and OT personnel who previously designed and maintained these systems separately now face important questions about who will be responsible for building and maintaining plant-based networks and information-enabled production assets.

This uncertainty, combined with the emerging technologies of a smart-manufacturing approach, including cloud, virtual and mobile platforms, has made it difficult for manufacturers to find workers with the skills and knowledge required to design, build, and maintain a smart, networked production system. Manufacturers must determine how they will train workers to meet these challenges. They must also improve collaboration and integration between plant floor personnel and IT – groups of workers who historically have not only focused on separate technologies but also gained their respective expertise in different manners.

Collaboration will be especially critical for the long term as manufacturers struggle to replace skilled retiring workforces with younger, less-experienced workers. In fact, Cisco estimates that 220,000 IT and OT engineers will be required every year to help scale the Internet of Things (IoT) in the industrial space.

Infusing training

IT and OT training approaches traditionally have been very different.

On the IT side, training has largely been self-directed and designed to help IT professionals stay on top of the latest trends and advance their careers. The training is often electronic and usually culminates in exams or assessments leading to career certifications.

On the OT side, training is more often supported through an employer as a means for the individual to obtain the hands-on skills and knowledge required to perform a job function. Training is typically conducted by an instructor in the classroom with hardware used for practice during labs. Historically, exams leading to certifications have not existed or been valued. Instead, industrial training has always prioritized building students’ confidence and comfort with their installed-base technology, emphasizing the skills required to maintain uptime and achieve operational excellence.

Training programs are responding to meet the needs of both groups as their functions become increasingly entwined on the plant floor. Manufacturers can expect to see more blended and consumable training options to help create a continuous culture of learning across the plant floor and IT roles.

For example, OT courses that previously were delivered only in hands-on, classroom-based settings are starting to be offered in an online setting to better meet the needs of IT professionals. OT professionals also can expect more knowledge-centric and certification-based training as they strive to become more knowledgeable on network systems.

New skills and knowledge

A range of online and in-person training courses already are being made available to help IT and OT professionals understand and conquer the challenges of converging their systems into one unified network architecture.

Online courses such as those offered through the Industrial IP Advantage – a coalition advocating a secure, holistic digital communications fabric based on standard unmodified use of Internet protocol – include interactive, scenario-based training that is designed to teach design skills for the IT/OT convergence transformation. Topics covered in these e-learning courses address critical network considerations for the plant floor, such as logical topologies, protocols, switching, routing, physical cabling, and wireless considerations.

New hands-on training courses and certifications that address IT/OT needs in converged environments also are being rolled out by training providers including Rockwell Automation. Among these are introductory-level courses that give workers the foundational skills they need to manage and administer networked industrial control systems. More-advanced courses take workers deeper into industrial Ethernet architectures with industrial protocols, wireless and security technology implementation, and advanced troubleshooting.

Perhaps most encouraging is the fact that the attendees showing up for these classroom-based courses include a mix of IT and OT professionals – suggesting that convergence is occurring not only at the network level but also at the workforce level.

An uncertain future

Even as companies move quickly to converge their networks and capture value from the IoT, much remains to be sorted out. Plant managers are working to redefine roles and responsibilities in their transformed operational environments while new roles are still likely to emerge.

At the same time, concerns are rising for many manufacturers about how they will replace their retiring workforces in developed nations and how they will staff new production facilities in regions that have fewer skilled workers. A recent Accenture survey of U.S. manufacturers found that 60% have found it difficult to hire the skilled people they need. The manufacturing industry’s growing reliance on advanced technologies and its move toward a converged IT/OT architecture will make it only more challenging to overcome these workforce challenges.

Manufacturers and workers who want to be prepared for the challenges of tomorrow shouldn’t wait. They can begin today by seeking out the emerging training offerings that are already available to ensure they have the combined networking and control-system skills needed to fully seize the opportunity of a connected enterprise.

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