Closing the IT/OT Gap to Ease Industry 4.0 Adoption

In today’s factories, across nearly every key industry, it’s common to see significant differences in the way various teams view and react to change in their operating environment. No clearer example of this exists than in manufacturing, where the adoption of new digital technologies and processes that deliver on the promise of Industry 4.0 is testing the two primary support teams that make this happen. The two teams are: Information Technology (IT), which runs the network that manages the enterprise, and Operational Technology (OT), which run the manufacturing lines including machines, robots, maintenance and anything related to them. They have been known to experience strained relationships as they work to smoothly usher in this transformation. This situation has spotlighted a clear gap in perceptions, support, and outlook of these technologies, highlighting a siloed approach that could stand as a roadblock to companies adopting Industry 4.0.

With Industry 4.0 being defined as the adoption of digital and connected solutions across the industrial automation ecosystem, closing the IT/OT gap has direct correlation to the successful implementation of this transformation and the move to a more competitive, automated factory floor.

So, why are there problems, and what challenges need to be overcome?

Cultural Barriers

While it’s tempting to focus on technology, the reality is the organizational and cultural challenges are one of the biggest barriers to the shift to Industry 4.0, as the IT and OT sides of the business resist – or at least don’t agree upon—how to make the bold changes. In our recent State of Industry 4.0 Survey, 44% of respondents saw organizational or cultural barriers as the most difficult to overcome – twice as many as those who pointed to technology (22%).

A company’s existing employees may feel that everything is working fine, and there’s no need for major changes. But at the same time, some of their colleagues may see big potential improvement opportunities– in particular, younger people may expect everything to be internet-connected and controlled with an app.

In our survey, the cultural challenge identified most often (by 45% of respondents) indicates that leadership may be more comfortable with traditional approaches, and they aren’t pushing for change. And it’s clear these views are affecting those in operational teams, with 42% of respondents citing the need to get full value from their existing investments as a barrier to Industry 4.0, while 32% stated their current organizational structure is holding change back.

Technology Changes

In the OT world, we’re often dealing with data generated on the factory floor, perhaps related to the outcome of a manufacturing process. In many companies today, there is no path to get this data to the IT (enterprise) systems where it can be used in business decisions. With this disconnect, it’s difficult or impossible to process this data and convert it to meaningful information to monitor and react, in real time, to information such as yield, or any divergence from expected business outputs.

Historically, the technologies on the OT side are complex, and could have a direct impact on safety or environment, and hence need more maintenance than those within IT, and more attention from highly-trained staff. OT systems may be more constrained, networks are based on proprietary protocols (even if they claim to be open), or less user-friendly – while the IT side is less constrained and more flexible to adopt human centric designs and cutting-edge technologies. The direct ties and immediate impacts of IT on business outcomes have attracted very large investments on related technologies and contributed to drastic advancements in this field.

Another critical point to consider is security. Hacks, ransomware and malicious attacks are increasingly emerging as a major problem for all sorts of organizations, as shown by recent news stories. While there are many approaches to securing Industry 4.0 systems, the temptation is to leave the OT and IT parts separate, with an ‘air gap’ meaning that attacks cannot cross from one to the other. This spotlights another organizational challenge that must be understood and overcome to convince management that the benefits are worth the extra cost of a unified yet secure approach.

If we look briefly at the enabling technologies for unifying IT and OT, networking and communications are always important. OT systems often use relatively old protocols with no security provisions, while the IT world relies on secure infrastructures. Ethernet is an excellent solution for many needs, but it is not enough for all OT applications as it doesn’t provide the real-time, guaranteed low latency performance needed on the factory floor. Recent developments, such as time sensitive networks (TSN), are addressing this issue converging the IT/OT networks, and broadening the scope of Ethernet applications, but there is still a long way to go to enable true unification.

Other technologies are taking on important roles to drive IT/OT unification, such as IP-enabled process controls, networked sensors, and secure public and private clouds for data storage. Standardization is being enabled by new initiatives, such as Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA), and Industry 4.0 is one of the key applications for new 5G communications networks.

Changing the Game by Unifying IT and OT

As businesses implement Industry 4.0, we’re starting to see clear, measurable gains across many metrics. Among them are improved production efficiency, reduced cost, and better operational resiliency. Infrastructure can be simplified – with costly duplication between IT and OT systems removed. We also see greater agility and flexibility, and the provision of secure remote access, enabling factories to be managed remotely from the far side of the world.

How can it happen in practice? Molex has a long history of helping customers in both IT and OT worlds. Molex has also invested in creating a multitude of innovations and technologies in its Industrial Automation Solutions 4.0 (IAS4.0) initiative aimed at converging these two worlds interconnecting machines, and business processes in a simple, safe and secure manner. The company is also investing in the development of open standards such as OPC UA Field Level Communication, and open solutions,  automated systems using cloud and other software and IT advancements are integral parts of Molex’s IAS4.0 initiative. Overall, we link information together to allow openness and data sharing – without giving away control or creating security risks.

To help overcome cultural factors and resistance to change, Molex works with teams to promote a move to Industry 4.0 that isn’t a rip-and-replace, all-or-nothing revolution, but a gradual phased approach that ensures the success of each iterative step —and the inclusion and support of all stakeholders.

We’ve seen many examples of successful OT/IT unification across multiple sectors, such as telecom, broadcast industries, smart buildings, smart cities and fintech.  In all these transformations, the vertical has gone through a very similar journey, finding proper solutions to address their very real OT constraints; manufacturing is no exception. 

The Need is Clear

Industry 4.0 has huge benefits to offer, but many organizations need to address issues to bring IT and OT together. In our survey, 85% of respondents agreed that success with Industry 4.0 needs leadership to change the way it thinks – but organizations need to keep in mind that cultural factors are often more difficult to overcome than technology ones.

This is not a reason to slow down or abandon any shift to Industry 4.0. It’s transforming industry, and in particular manufacturing, with massive gains in productivity, efficiency, and output – at lower cost. We’re instead highlighting that overcoming the organizational and technology barriers requires a firm understanding of the entire ecosystem across culture, process and technology to ensure not only a smooth transition, but a foundation set to take on the shift to Industry 5.0, whatever that may bring to the table, in the years ahead.

Director of New Product Development and Strategy for Industrial Solutions Business Unit