In the ever-evolving industry of Industrial Automation, trends and best practices are constantly changing with the goal of helping companies become better, smarter, and faster. Understanding that we need to be at the forefront of these conversations, Stratus launched a questionnaire poll on Twitter to gauge industry understanding of some leading-edge ideas and tactics. These Twitter polls were launched in the IA vertical markets of Oil & Gas, Food & Beverage, and Water & Wastewater.

Four weeks and two polls later, we had just over 32,000 folks engage with us on their understanding of their industry’s organizational strategies leading into the future. The information we collected is revealing, and the volume in itself illustrates the relevance and challenges related to this topic. We look forward to sharing these viewpoints in a collection of blog posts, and we will take a deep dive into poll findings, exploring the value of the information captured.

In this introduction to the blog series, we’d like to explore one of the main findings regarding Industrial Automation. We asked: “How do you think industrial companies can bridge the divide between IT and OT while ensuring all priorities are met?”. Before we get to the results, let’s talk about why we asked the question in the first place.

Traditionally, and rightly so regarding legacy systems, IT and OT have remained separate camps with separate priorities, functions, and culture. But since industrial companies are adopting new infrastructures enabled by IIoT and Big Data such as automated systems, smart buildings, virtualized machines, etc., the line between these camps have blurred. We are approaching, and in many cases, have already arrived at a new era of technology and operations. This recently charted territory will drastically change the way we have been doing things, and successful companies will remain open-minded when it comes to adopting new strategies.

One of these Strategies, although controversial, includes merging the departments, and possibly even the role, of IT and OT. So, we included this approach as an option when we asked the above question. As a result, 35% of respondents agree that IT and OT should merge for the best results when bridging the gap between IT and OT. Let’s discuss what is driving the popularity of this approach.

Craig Resnick from ARC Advisory Group delves more into this topic in this presentation. During the lecture, Craig addresses the fact that with manufacturers dealing with the combination of legacy systems and IIoT enabled automation technologies, we are seeing more and more IT functionality moving closer to the plant floor. Converging IT and OT is how manufacturers go from these new smart machines on the OT level, and start hooking them up to IT who are dealing with technologies like virtualization, and be able to run powerful analytics. In other words, the IT/OT convergence will enable the digital transformation of manufacturers. My colleague Jason Andersen participated in a similar discussion with a variety of industry peers at the ARC Forum this February, see here for more details.

But what would this convergence look like? Craig reviews a few options, including calling this new department the “Manufacturing IT Group”, embedding IT skills into Automation/Engineering or, giving Automation to IT services. Check out additional paths here, including the emergence of a new breed of “industrial technologists” with a combined IT/OT perspective.

Of course, there will be roadblocks when executing this convergence. Here are some common challenges when combining IT and OT:

  • One challenge is combining the cultures of two organizations who do not necessarily trust each other, and literally have worked and organized at different levels – think ‘Purdue’ ISA-95. OT thinks IT is a commodity with an indistinct ROI. But IT is the foundation of Automation Systems. Breaking down the barriers and establishing trust between these two cultures is a necessity when merging functions, and paths to resolution are most productive when balanced with company cultures, organizational values and clear alignment to both strategic and operational aspirations driving the merger.
  • Another challenge of merging IT and OT is that both areas have different functions and goals and downtime to systems can have very different levels of impact. For example, unlike a billing system that goes down, a SCADA failure can bring a company to its knees in seconds, or worse, result in loss of lives.
  • The perspective of problem solving differs as well – IT tends to look at things top down, starting with the overall goals and cascades down from there, while OT tends to operate bottoms up; after all, it has many process specific (legacy) applications, protocols, and much of it outspans the average IT system by many years.

Combining OT and IT is a complex journey, but can have invaluable benefits – improving access to real time data and information as just one of many advantages. In future blog posts on this topic, we’ll share more of our perspectives on the many dimensions of OT/IT convergence, as well as those from our customers and partners.

Meanwhile – what examples have you seen of IT/OT merging, and what do you think was the defining factor to their success?

Follow us on Twitter @StratusAlwaysOn to watch out for the next in the series!