Krishnan is a thought leader and a respected veteran of the industrial automation industry having associated with leading OEMs like Invensys (Schneider) and Emerson. Through his strategic foresight, drive, and determination, Utthunga has grown from a three people team in 2007 to over 750 people with esteemed clients in multiple industries and continents. Krishnan’s ability to build high-performance teams, including his strategically-selected management staff, have enabled Utthunga to grow at a very fast pace. He is a master craftsman in customer relationship management, strategic alliances, change management, delivery management across multiple industries, business domains, technologies & geographies.
Among recent trends in industrial automation, Machine to Machine (M2M) connectivity has emerged as one of the favorite topics of discussion. Whether it is Industry 4.0 or IIoT, the importance of M2M communication in various industries is constantly increasing. With machines and systems shrinking and human intervention becoming only supervisory, industrial connectivity has gained tremendous attention, especially in the manufacturing industry.
The terms like digital transformation and connected factories are not confined only to established enterprises but are equally important to small and medium-sized companies. This article sheds light on some of the most significant aspects of industrial connectivity that are crucial in achieving sustainable growth for established and upcoming companies across the industrial sector.
The current landscape of industrial connectivity, key trends, and bottlenecks:
Post-COVID, organizations of all sizes have witnessed rapid traction in adopting competencies in digital transformation and industrial connectivity. Driven by the wide scope and benefits, all the stakeholders in manufacturing industries are either convinced or compelled to embrace digital footprints in their respective areas.
Those who have already been digitally equipped in the past, are now exploring the newer ways to upgrade themselves and stay ahead in the stiff competition. Those who are new, are aligning themselves to digitize their available infrastructure and resources. Though the current speed of digitalization may not be enough, steady progress in adopting digitalization technologies and the process is emerging from all possible corners.
The biggest bottleneck that continues to hamper the industry even today is the lack of practical understanding of the need and scope of digital transformation realities. Generally, the end-industries prefer choosing the most affordable digital solution to quickly fix their current problem, unaware of the bigger picture that lies ahead. Dominant solution providers, consulting firms, and OEMs, on the other hand, tend to push their products and solutions instead of preparing the enterprises for futuristic challenges.
Also, the misconception that technologies alone can help achieve digitization leads to either overinvesting or ignoring the power of reinventing traditional processes and approaches at various levels within the organization.
Ideal IT-OT integration strategy for industrial connectivity:
Integrated communication across all layers of IT-OT is the most desirable strategy for industries. This requires shelving siloed approaches in respective IT or OT departments and collaborating to arrive at the most feasible solution within available infrastructure and resources. With the dynamics of automation in industries changing rapidly, enterprises must have a healthy balance and coordination between field operation devices and information processing layers.
Owing to complexities, cost implications, and operational risks due to cyber and compliances, the IT-OT strategy must choose the right combination of technology and processes for developing an efficient ecosystem of industrial connectivity. For example, OPC UA provides open connectivity and interoperability for a wide variety of automation devices. Hence, a constant vigil must be practiced to align and upgrade to standards towards which the global industry is moving.
Another important strategy to achieve efficient IT-OT functioning is to overcome the challenges due to siloed island of automation within the organization. Org-level due diligence and collaboration of both departments will go a long way in achieving the desired industrial connectivity solutions. Enterprises can also consider implementing secure network technologies to bridge IT and OT like DMZs(demilitarized zones).
Effective and safe data communication across IT-OT calls for integrated industrial communication. While leveraging benefits from powerful technologies is an obvious approach, more subtle factors such as ‘connecting people and ‘customer experience’ also must be taken into consideration to ensure that only clean, relevant, and intelligent data is transacted over different layers within and outside the enterprise.
Optimizing digital infrastructure through the power of digital transformation:
Getting started with the digital transformation journey can be challenging, especially for new entrants. The safest and most promising way to upgrade the digital infrastructure is to use retrofit technologies to connect existing systems. This gradual and regular exercise of adding newer digital competencies at the people and system level will help organizations understand and react to the diverse landscape of industrial connectivity.
One of the surest ways for organizations to upgrade the existing infrastructure is to first establish the basic hygiene required for digital transformation. This may include modifying the current practices and adopting small, but realistic approaches either in terms of processes, operations, or basic plant floor equipment and devices.
The leadership and top decision-making executives must start establishing enterprise-wide digitalization strategies including their partners and vendors. It would be a good idea for them to start with end business objectives and then, incrementally implement the solution. This incremental journey will help detect failures early and prevent cost leakage without impacting the basic fabric of the digital journey.
Field-to-Cloud communication through edge devices:
Industrial communication can be broken down into two stages – field to edge, and edge to cloud.
To achieve efficient field-to-edge communication for intelligent manufacturing, companies must focus on leveraging the power of edge devices. This may include upgrading to the latest edge-computing technologies that can deliver real-time data transmission with minimum latency. For example, devices with inbuilt sensors and communication capabilities over IT networks can be introduced. Such small, but important implementations may add to incremental progress in developing intelligent and self-healing systems that will deliver valuable results over a long period.
Edge devices are pivotal for facilitating downstream as well as upstream data communication. For seamless edge-to-cloud communication, manufacturers must ensure minimum cloud infrastructure to store, access, and retrieve the data. Once this is achieved without expensive outlays, they must establish optimized computing power that is scalable, to meet the demand of future growth.
One of the very important strategies to leverage edge-cloud-edge communication is to have a technology partner and advisory model that emphasizes on long-term solution. This approach will overcome the limitation of the traditional OEM approach that focuses majorly on localized challenges and related issues. This would help achieve automation and modernization that can deliver flexible solutions, without running the risk of getting locked by a vendor.
Can technology alone lead to connected factories?
Technology is a major driving factor in making connected factories a reality. Popular technologies like Big Data, AI, Cyber-physical Systems, IoT, Security Intelligence, and Automation will play a crucial role in consolidating various touch points across the industry operations. It means that equipment, machines, and systems in a smart-factory environment must be able to communicate with each other and self-align for production, correction, and completion.
Apart from investing in technologies, enterprises must also stress upskilling their people and improving workplace culture. Well-designed people and workspace culture improvement programs and practices will lead to a healthy mindset, behavior, and skill. For example, eliminating bureaucracy and establishing merit-based employee engagement will deliver long-lasting benefits to businesses.
Since the technology landscape for connected factories keeps changing, the focus must be to develop innovative, flexible, and scalable business models to meet customer requirements and demands. An ideal technology strategy for connected factories would be to have strong fundamentals in terms of data processing and network connectivity. On top of this, enough room should be created to accommodate customized solutions and newer technologies as and when they evolve.
What RoI can manufacturers expect from connectivity solutions?
Connectivity and digitalization transformation brings the transparency of information in real-time to all the stakeholders. When manufacturers adopt the right intent and competencies, such as transparency drive operational excellence that rallies across the organization. It helps optimize and utilize three major resources in any business – man, material, and money. Scalable and intelligent connectivity solutions increase the lifetime of all the assets and systems across the manufacturing ecosystem. These together, contribute to reducing OpEx and CapEx.
Factors such as reduced downtime, minimal startup time, predictive maintenance, etc. in manufacturing enterprises are achieved by designing and implementing intelligent connectivity solutions. It also helps achieve larger objectives like reduced carbon footprint, saving energy, enhanced sustainability, increased safety, improved employee wellbeing, and safeguarding environmental impact from hazardous industrial practices.