Why remote access to plants for employees, partners, and vendors is the new normal

Oct. 7, 2020
In this installment of Automation Zone, learn how IT and OT are evolving in the age of COVID-19.

With IT/OT convergence transforming the plant floor, companies are struggling to find people with the right skillsets to manage not only new technologies but also new security threats.

About the Author: Phil Bush

Many companies have talented IT and OT teams in place. But few have IT/OT specialists. These are experts who merge OT application knowledge with technology typically used in IT roles. They have the right blend of skills and knowledge to help realize the potential of digitalized production operations, while avoiding issues that can cause costly downtime.

The need for these specialists has been especially apparent this year. With COVID-19 forcing people out of plants, demand has surged for secure and reliable remote plant access – a key capability enabled by IT/OT convergence. New ransomware attacks and other threats targeting the plant floor also continue to emerge, and traditional IT security tools and skillsets alone aren’t enough to combat them in dynamic plant environments.

To realize the promise of IT/OT convergence and reduce risk to your business, one option is to leverage remote-managed services. They can deliver the capabilities and resources you need to deploy, monitor, and manage key aspects of your virtualized plant operations.

Three possible opportunities

Remote-managed services combine support components like domain expertise, technology, remote connectivity, and monitoring. The services are geared toward the aspects of your operations where IT assets now play a prominent role, like your connected application assets, plant networks, firewalls, and data centers hosting manufacturing software.

Most importantly, remote-managed services can help drive the production outcomes that matter most to you, like improving asset utilization and minimizing downtime. To understand how, let’s look at three common needs in plants where remote-managed services can help.

1. Securing operations. Plant floors tend to be more dynamic and complex than IT environments. That’s why a comprehensive approach to cybersecurity is needed to help protect them. It can be difficult to know where to even begin securing your plant floor. With remote-managed services, you can get the support you need to ensure your infrastructure is secure, robust, and reliable.

This can include using domain expertise and monitoring capabilities to maintain a high level of availability. Or it could involve maintaining key pieces of your infrastructure, like firewall appliances that must be kept up to date and in continual operation to maintain a high-order security posture. A remote service provider can help monitor the appliance on your behalf and provide remote administration.

Additionally, you can use remote services to manage your enterprise risk with active threat detection management, allowing you to maintain compliance and greater business continuity. This involves identifying normal network behavior, continuously monitoring for activity that does not conform to that expected baseline and alerting you of suspicious behavior.

An advantage to leveraging a remote service provider is that it can help deploy threat detection across several dozen sites. It allows the manufacturer to gain better visibility into its OT assets and detect anomalies and vulnerabilities in real time.

2. Implementing remote access. Giving employees, partners, and vendors remote access to plants has become the new normal during the pandemic. And it’s likely to remain critical for companies long after the pandemic given the benefits it’s shown, such as more efficient and lower-cost plant support.

A remote-managed service can provide the technology and management you need to establish and maintain secure remote access to plants. The service provider can manage key aspects of remote connections, like user logins, and can help make sure the connections are authorized, such as by using multi-factor authentication and integrating with Windows Active Directory for user authorization.

Another option is to implement remote access solely for monitoring plant applications by a remote support team. The team can monitor hundreds or thousands of data points across a plant, and either address issues remotely or notify on-site personnel to address them. This can help you reduce downtime and fill a critical need if you’re struggling to find maintenance talent locally.

You can also combine new technologies with remote access to reimagine work across your plants.

For example, some companies are using augmented reality tools to connect remote SMEs with plant personnel to see and solve problems almost as if they were there in person. And others are combining remote support centers with artificial intelligence to proactively monitor the health of equipment around the world and get ahead of costly failures.

3. Maintaining virtualized operations. Manufacturers are using virtualization to operate with more efficiency, flexibility, and cost effectiveness. They’re virtualizing manufacturing outcomes, like batch management and process visualization, as well as processes themselves, like the reconfiguring of machines for new product runs. But as these things move from the OT space into the IT/OT space, new skillsets are needed.

Software used for changeovers, for example, is now as integral to production as the machine and must be properly managed to avoid downtime. And data must be able to travel through IT assets like network switches. A remote-managed service can monitor and maintain these assets if you don’t have the resources available locally.

In one case, a food producer used a remote service provider to monitor and administer its virtual environments and industrial data centers. The provider also helped secure the environment and provided a single point of contact for support, with response times of less than three minutes. Ultimately, this helped the food maker significantly reduce its IT/OT issues over a previous IT-managed model and achieve a 90% reduction in downtime.

Virtualization also has the potential to reduce non-productive time in new and creative ways. Imagine connecting your plants to your OEMs to perform virtual factory-acceptance tests for new machines while they’re still on the OEM’s shop floor. This could allow machines to start running almost immediately after they’re delivered on-site. Or think about the time savings you could realize after a fire or other incident if you could restore back-up files from a data center that’s being virtually managed.

An extension of your team

Skills shortages and cybersecurity risks likely aren’t the only challenges you face as you try to create smarter, more connected plants. You may also be contending with aging equipment, greater pressures to improve productivity, and new environmental regulations and mandates.

Remote-managed services can help you address these challenges by supplementing your team and taking on some of your biggest technology-related challenges, so your people can focus on doing what they do best.

Automation Zone

This article is part of our monthly Automation Zone column. Read more from our monthly Automation Zone series.

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