Prepare your teams to embrace benefits of IT-OT while managing risks

In this installment of Automation Zone, we get ready for converged operations.

By Pat Murray, Rockwell Automation

As manufacturers and industrial producers converge their plant-floor and front-office systems to build a connected enterprise, plant managers need to consider how they can help workers make the most of this connectivity and manage its inherent risks.

The convergence of information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) systems, for example, requires close collaboration between IT and OT personnel. Greater volumes of data also require an understanding of data analytics. And more connection points require a renewed focus on industrial security to help protect workers, intellectual property, equipment and operations.

All of this is putting new demands on manufacturing and industrial workforces. And it’s happening at a time when a large number of older, highly experienced workers are retiring, while qualified young talent is increasingly hard to come by.

As organizations plan or move forward with IT/OT convergence, you and your teams can prepare in several key ways for the changes and challenges to come.

Re-examine training programs

The convergence of IT and OT technologies has blurred the roles and responsibilities of those who are responsible for installing, operating, and maintaining them. As a result, IT and OT jobs are no longer mutually exclusive, and new training is needed to provide the knowledge and skillsets for managing and administering networked industrial control systems. At the same time, organizations must be able to retain these skills and knowledge for the long term, particularly through worker retirements.

Plant managers should review their training programs to ensure that they are documenting standard processes and procedures to help maintain consistency even as their most experienced workers leave. They also should conduct an analysis of job skill and knowledge levels to help workers perform at the required level. Lastly, they should have a competency-improvement program in place to make productivity and profitability improvements a constant goal.

Embrace security

Cross-functional collaboration is crucial to helping a company protect its assets from a vast and ever-growing threat landscape. For example, IT and OT personnel must collaborate to establish a secure network architecture. Safety and IT personnel also must work together to help prevent safety-system breaches that could threaten worker safety, product quality, the environment and the critical-infrastructure systems on which populations depend.

At the same time, even the best security policies and procedures will fall short if all workers don’t follow them. In fact, one of the most common security risks comes from good workers who make innocent mistakes. That’s why a strong security culture is important: All workers should understand not only the appropriate usage of their system and data access, but also the risks that exist and the important role they play in security.

Rethink safety

Contemporary safety systems can provide access to valuable safety-system data, such as device and operational statuses, error or fault codes, event sequences and more. When harnessed in a connected enterprise, safety and operations personnel can use this data to better understand risks, enhance safety programs, reduce safety-related downtime and ease compliance.

Remote monitoring, for example, can reduce the need for oil and gas workers to travel across sites to physically check on well heads, storage sites and pump stations. This can be especially beneficial given that transportation incidents are the leading cause of work injuries in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At the same time, safety and production data in a manufacturing plant can be combined to help identify and reduce safety-related downtime incidents.

All of this can only happen, however, if safety professionals are able to actively define their goals with IT and OT personnel as part of a companywide connected strategy.

Utilize third-party support

The skills needed to maintain and support a converged infrastructure may not be locally available or may simply not be required in the form of a full-time job. One-time activities, such as conducting a network’s assessment, design, implementation, and validation, may be best managed by a third-party provider.

Once a converged infrastructure is operational, many organizations also find it easier to outsource various support functions. Today, machine builders and vendors can use remote access to provide real-time and continuous condition monitoring, data collection and live support for any issues that arise.

Invest in tomorrow’s talent today

Even in a connected enterprise, where data reigns, an organization’s most valuable asset remains its employees. Unfortunately, a large number of retiring workers combined with too few young people to replace them is creating a significant worker-availability challenge. In fact, Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute estimate that 2 million skilled manufacturing jobs will go unfilled between 2015 and 2025.

Manufacturers and industrial operators must take it upon themselves to not only reach out to but also inspire the next generation of workers. This includes changing the perception among young people about their industries: from boring and unsafe to high-tech, safe and sustainable. It also includes sparking an interest with young people early in their education by communicating that manufacturing and industrial jobs can be fascinating, fun and financially rewarding.

Taking an active role

IT/OT convergence is a critical step to helping companies harness the power of their data. However, convergence will only be a success if companies actively prepare their workers through a mix of training, improved collaboration and outside support, and by putting a plan in place to tackle the skills gap.

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