Can OT Data Dazzle Outside its Protective Shell?
OT Data Stepping into the IT World
Why is operational data (OT data) making inroads to the IT world? What is causing OT data to leave its comfort zone and stepping into a new frontier? And why is this step imperative for the next generation of industrial automation? In this episode of OT Data Next, Moxa’s expert, Johnny Wang, takes an in-depth look at why it is crucial for operational data to step into the IT world and to identify the potential threats lurking in the dark.
According to Wang, the reason OT data is leaving its nest is closely tied to our operational needs. It all has to do with how we’re using OT data, said Wang. Let’s consider the evolution of OT data, starting with Industry 2.0. This era saw the introduction of electricity and assembly-line production, which prompted the invention of controllers to better control the devices on the factory floor, as mass production was gaining traction. By using a simple on-and-off switch, these controllers helped us complete simple routine tasks. Back then, data was few in quantity and stayed within the confines of the devices that generated them. In its infancy, OT data of the Industry 2.0 era was limited to activities within its own devices.
The third Industrial Revolution introduced system automation as the new standard. The advancement of computing and communication technologies enabled automated production processes’ capabilities to connect and communicate. This was achieved by adding sensors to the original controllers, creating a closed loop that involved sensors gathering data and sending it back to the controller for some preliminary calculations. Based on these calculations, feedbacks helped complete the command. This closed loop of commands signified the first step taken by OT data from only existing inside the devices to circulating between a few devices in a closed loop system.
Along with further technological advancements, the evolution of OT data was inevitable. With the advent of Industry 4.0, or Industrial Digital Transformation, people are no longer just satisfied with just preprogrammed automation. They now demand a smart, self-thinking system. This has pushed our mandates for OT data to the next level. So, the big question now is how to maximize OT data’s true value. To achieve this feat, OT data needs to extend beyond its original dwellings and step into data centers or the cloud for further analysis to potentially improve production efficiency, enhance production quality, reduce costs, and even provide new business services. This kick-started a phenomenon that turned protected and localized OT data into usable data when transmitting it to remote IT systems and feeding it back to the OT side for real-time optimization. This phenomenon is what we at Moxa refer to as the Everlasting Data Stream, in which data continuously circulates between OT and IT, forming a lasting loop.
As an example, Wang pointed out an auto parts manufacturer he worked with. The factory had “bottleneck equipment,” which meant all items had to go through that specific equipment during the manufacturing process. Hence, if the equipment stopped, so did the entire production line, which made maintenance of this specific equipment imperative. Considering the high stakes, the manufacturer wanted to perform predictive maintenance on the equipment to anticipate which parts might wear out and stock up in advance to avoid stalling the production because of shortages. In the end, they installed additional sensors to this bottleneck equipment. The necessary OT data was gathered and sent to cloud computing for analysis. Finally, the status of the parts was calculated and predictions feedback to the managers for further actions. (For detailed case sharing, please refer to Two Ways the IIoT Turns Data Into Gold for Manufacturing.)
Is OT Data Ready to Swim in the IT Ocean?
While moving data from an OT domain to an IT domain seems to paint a rose-colored world, a few considerations are required before diving headfirst into the deep end. Wang proposed these three things to consider before taking this leap:
The first and most common challenge encountered when OT data is moving beyond its original confines is the interoperability of OT/IT data. Since the communication protocols used in the OT field are often vastly different from the ones IT use, systems often run into communication errors when trying to send data between the two. For example, when the OT data output shows a single “5" with no context, IT will never know that the number 5 represents "machine speed", thus stalling the line of communication. For the OT/IT data cycle to materialize, and for the data to move among the two domains freely, preprocessing OT data is required.
The second challenge is whether OT data can be transmitted in its entirety via connectivity technologies. This is especially challenging because of many disturbances found in OT environments, such as electromagnetic waves generated when devices start, extreme temperatures, harsh environments, and even the mutual interference between the control network and the OT data network. These disturbances may cause communication disconnection or instability. Such disconnection can cause incomplete or dropped transmissions, resulting in erroneous analysis and, by extension, erroneous decision-making. In cases like this, it is important to strengthen the "resilience of data transmission” to ensure that data is promptly transmitted in its entirety.
Finally, the more valuable OT data becomes, the more important it is to secure its transmission. Cybersecurity was not much of an issue in the past since the physical barriers of a factory were most likely enough to protect the data that was contained within its walls. However, now that we connect OT data to IT systems or the cloud, its old protective shells no longer work. Therefore, how to strengthen "OT network’s security" will become a required focal point for enterprises.