Four Keys For Building A Reliable Infrastructure For The IIoT Journey

What does the road ahead look like? And what should enterprises be thinking about now to ensure that journey arrives at the full business value of IIoT?

Manufacturing enterprises across the industry spectrum are making their tentative first forays into the industrial Internet of things (IIoT) to advance their automation. To date, this has largely consisted of limited pilot projects for specific use cases, often focused on optimizing production efficiency in some way. But that’s just the first step on the IIoT journey. What does the road ahead look like? And what should enterprises be thinking about now to ensure that journey arrives at the full business value of IIoT?

IIoT Progression

Think of the IIoT journey as a four-step progression — the “four I’s.” The first step is making the enterprise Informed, using automation to control processes and store historical data (think SCADA and Historian systems). That’s where most manufacturing enterprises are today. The next step in the progression is Insightful, which adds business analytics to drive new insights and identify opportunities for efficiencies (think IIoT gateways and analytics platforms).

In the next step — Intelligent — the insights revealed by analytics become more actionable. In this step, the IIoT scales up as multiple “things” are connected to each other and to centralized analytics platforms (think IIoT smart connected hubs). This enables real-time changes and is required to optimize processes and identify opportunities for business improvement.

The final step is called Invisible, where the “intelligent infrastructure” has been fully realized. Decisions are made in real time using artificial intelligence, with no human interaction. Just as driverless cars will transform personal transportation, fully automated factories will transform the economics and agility of manufacturing enterprises.

Increasing Data Criticality

What’s important to understand about this progression is that as machine-based automation becomes more sophisticated and “smart,” the data that makes it all possible becomes increasingly critical. This reality has profound implications on the operational technology (OT) infrastructure. Realizing the benefits of IIoT requires connectivity, but that changes everything. As one speaker at a recent conference I attended said, “If you’re not connected, you’re neglected.” Connecting systems and data sources that have traditionally operated as isolated “islands” introduces potential risk. So people start paying attention.

For this reason, transitioning to a connected infrastructure is a critical inflection point that demands a thoughtful approach. Preparing your OT environment for the connected IIoT future is not just about replacing old infrastructure with new infrastructure; it’s about replacing it with something better.

Four Keys to Reliability

So what constitutes better? Given the criticality of data in an IIoT environment, better means designed from the ground up to prevent downtime by protecting critical data. I believe there are four key components to an IIoT infrastructure that fulfills this mission:

No. 1 - Reliable infrastructure – Ensuring the reliability of systems is fundamental to protecting data. Ensuring you can deliver critical computing, networking and storage resources with no downtime is essential. This means building in availability as a core requirement for OT systems — and for the analytics platforms and data stores on which they rely in an IIoT environment.

No. 2 - Secure connectivity – This means ensuring data is not lost, tampered with or stolen. Security is a critical success factor not just to ensure production systems remain up and running, but also ensuring the analytics on which the IIoT depends is not impacted by data loss, interruption or corruption.

No. 3 - Predictive serviceability – This is a factor often overlooked when planning IIoT implementations, yet it is critically important. Ensuring the technology can be remotely managed is important for OT staffs that may not have the bandwidth to service a proliferation of sensors and systems, especially when some of those systems may be located at remote locations or satellite plants. In addition, leveraging analytics to monitor sensor data on production equipment and predict failures before they occur is crucial to minimize unplanned downtime.

No. 4 - Performant applications – This is about making sure applications that are now connected work together well and scale to meet growing and changing needs. Since many production environments are filled with old, unsupported applications that aren’t interoperable, this may require replacing legacy systems with next-generation apps that are optimized for use in connected environments.

The People Factor

There’s one more critical success factor for the IIoT journey: people. Moving to IIoT raises new questions that challenge the status quo, since the division between the roles of OT and IT will begin to blur a bit. Who owns the infrastructure? Who will manage what? What governance policies must be instituted and who will enforce them? Does the OT organization have the right skill sets to optimize the new environment? Answering these and other critical questions of organizational culture is essential to avoid pitfalls that could derail your IIoT strategy.

It is tempting for OT to think that the growing role of IT in an IIoT environment will shift much of the responsibility over to the data center. But rest assured, if production systems are not delivering on the planned improvements, it will come full circle back to OT. Taking steps now to ensure the connected infrastructure is reliable, secure, serviceable, and interoperable will position you well to avoid problems as you progress on the IIoT journey from automation that is Informed and Insightful to Intelligent and, ultimately, Invisible.

Jason Andersen is Vice President Business Line Management at Stratus Technologies.

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