Continued Convergence: Colliding worlds of IT and OT illuminated in Smart Factory survey

By Greg Hookings, Head of Business Development – Digitalisation, Stratus Technologies. 

New research, completed by teknowlogy Group, paints a clear picture of the need for increased investment for Smart Factory initiatives but with that also comes increased responsibility. The question is, where does this responsibility lie?

In the age of Industry 4.0 and Digital Transformation, worlds are converging and starting to bridge the gap between OT (Operational Technology) and IT professionals. The research focused on these two groups of decision-makers who represented 204 European manufacturing enterprises with more than 500 employees that were already embarking on their Smart Factory journey.

As mentioned by one of the survey participants in the full report, which can be read here, “Smart Factory is the new frontier of innovation for our company.” And, this is reflected in the results with a comfortable majority (63%) of companies planning to increase their investment in the next three years. Whilst this result might have been easily predicted when surveying companies that are already on the journey, what is surprising is the maturity of the market. Of those companies already investing in Smart Factories, 37% said they are in the ‘planning and evaluation stages’ of their initiatives, while nearly one in five (19%) consider themselves in a ‘medium phase’ of deployment - which is described as having the first live Smart Factory initiative generating business impacts. The outstanding statistic has to be that 8% of responders considered their organisations to already be in the ‘advanced stages of deployment’ - complete organisation - wide Smart Factory deployment. The survey, which aimed to highlight the barriers to adoption in the early stages, has also shown that, for some, a lot of these initiatives have already come of age.

So, what are the barriers to Smart Factory deployment? As with any new technology, cost remains the single largest barrier, with more than half (58%) citing “cost of purchase” as a significant challenge to their own implementation plans. A similar number (48%) cite “building the business case” as a hinderance to deployment. This perhaps gives the illusion that Smart Factory initiatives are an expensive investment with payback a long way off. A closer interrogation of the statistics reveals a very different message. When asked “Has your Smart Factory initiative so far delivered a Return on Investment (ROI)?” More than half (56%) reported that they are yet to see a ROI -  This is not unexpected with many initiatives in the early stages but does leave 44% already seeing a ROI. Even more revealing is the rate at which they have seen this return. Of those respondents that answered yes to seeing ROI, a huge majority (97%) saw this return in less than three years. Drilling down even further we can see that almost half (45%) of those respondents achieved ROI in less than one year. These statistics should work wonders to building the business case for Smart Factory initiatives. 

When asked where companies analyse their Smart Factory data today many (46%) said in their own datacentre. This is to be expected when it comes to highly sensitive manufacturing data; data which is traditionally not stored outside of the facility.  With that said, 40% said they do analyse data in the Cloud today with 14% analysing it on the production floor – right at the network Edge. But, where data is analysed is changing and more than one in three (35%) said they will be using Edge Computing for their data analysis in five years’ time. This is showing a growing interest in data analytics at the Edge, easing the traffic of data in the traditional datacentre, and helping end users manage data in real-time at the application edge. With the right Edge Computing platform manufacturers can also appease some security concerns as the data also never leaves the network.

Taking computing to the plant floor brings us back to the original question, are Smart Factory initiatives an IT or an OT responsibility? The short answer is neither! In fact 40% cite “challenges integrating OT and IT” as a barrier to deployment. What we are seeing is the emergence of the hybrid professional. This professional’s role includes the traditional IT responsibilities such as managing data, networking and cybersecurity. These skills are critical in modern automation implementations but as more analysis moves towards the Edge, OT skills and understanding become paramount. With Edge Computing analysing data at the source, those on-site can improve operations areas such as advanced process control, real-time quality inspections and identifying device failure, and with the correct Edge Computing platform this level of analytics can be achieved with little previous IT knowledge and training. 

The new hybrid professional has a deep understanding of the technological needs that drive decisions on the production floor, they also see the high value of the data that is collected at the network edge. Their role will be to use this data to make strategic business decisions whilst understanding the detailed functionality of the manufacturing plant. The future value that this hybrid professional brings to any enterprise is incalculable at the moment, but the evolution of Edge Computing alongside its human counterpart will be a fascinating one to watch.

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