Industries underestimate complexity of IT/OT convergence

smart industry

May 11, 2023

Smart factory operations face some often underestimated risks, according to a Gartner survey. One is not paying attention to the complexity involved in the convergence between the IT (Information Technology), OT (Operational Technology) and ET (Engineering Technology) fronts.

Smart factory initiatives require cultural and operational transformations, which are slow by nature and in many cases need entirely new organisational designs to integrate more resources. “Smart factory operations provide numerous benefits, from expanded production to more capacity to improve quality and solve labour challenges. However, potential benefits can also be a major pitfall, as there can be a rush to launch smart initiatives without a clear understanding of the extent of the challenges involved,” says Simon Jacobson, vice president of analysis in Gartner’s Supply Chain Practice.

One such challenge is to recognise that smart factory governance should not only focus on the connections between plants and business areas, but also on how the IT, OT and ET fronts are managed. These three areas are inseparable, and convergence and alignment between them are critical as production models change. To reduce complexity, you need to become familiar with alternative organisational models to align IT and OT and develop governance structures according to new production schemes.

Trends in the area

The top 10 trends in the field of IT/OT convergence highlighted by IoT Analytics at SPS 2022 – Smart Production Solutions, one of the world’s most important industrial automation trade shows were:

1. IT-based containerization technology at the edges – Vendors such as Siemens, Lenze, Belden, Flecs, MathWorks, Wago and others have highlighted containerization of workloads at the edges.

2. Integration of IT and OT tools – A notable trend is the close collaboration of IT and OT companies to create integrated solutions, among them Schneider Electric and Software AG.

3. Cloud-native (IT) tools to enhance manufacturing operations – This is the case with the Siemens Xcelerator solution, a curated portfolio of IoT-enabled hardware and software, a partner ecosystem and a marketplace. Siemens plans to make the entire hardware and software portfolio modular, connected to the cloud and developed over APIs. The ecosystem currently has 60 partners.

4. Programming (IT) tools and languages for controllers – There is increased availability of IT programming tools for OT programmers. Siemens, for example, has released a new version (V18) of the TIA (software for writing control logic) portal that comes with expanded workflows for IT. Most notably, the Automatic Xpansion development environment (Siemens AX) is now cloud-based and Microsoft Visual Studio Code and allows version control via GitLab. Schneider Electric, meanwhile, introduced Automation Expert software for software-centric PLC programming.

5. Virtual PLCs – controllers in containers – Companies are migrating to virtual PLCs, which are independent of control hardware and IT hardware and can run on commoditized IT servers instead of specialized controllers. During SPS 2022, Codesys launched its new virtual PLC offering – Codesys Virtual Control SL. Several startups also showcased their virtual and flexible PLCs.

6. Digital twins to virtualize physical assets – While IT/OT convergence is often associated with OT adopting IT tools, with digital twins, we see the opposite, i.e. IT adopting OT in a virtualized environment. The Industrial Digital Twin Association presented use cases in this area.

7. Low-code tools – Tools of this kind had a widespread presence at SPS 2022. Siemens showed how Mendix can be used to develop low-code applications for the Industrial Edge. Startups 36zero and Appollo Systems also exhibited their solutions. Peakboard, meanwhile, highlighted its tool for creating production dashboards.

8. MQTT protocol connecting OT and IT – MQTT is gaining momentum as a connectivity protocol for last mile OT assets and IT/cloud systems. It is already possible to use the protocol with millions of devices, tools to monitor data and message flows and advanced security features.

9. IT cybersecurity models for OT – The Zero Trust security concept developed for IT can work in OT environments. Siemens and Zscaler have expanded the OT concept of Defence in Depth guaranteed by a Zero Trust Architecture.

10. IT approach to industrial software quality control – The PLCopen association has announced that it is considering forming a working group to develop guidelines for metrics-based quality assessment of PLC software.