Planning for the Future: Productivity, Security, and Automation
Thought leadership from Rockwell Automation execs point to future trends and how to leverage technology and skills to increase productivity and the security of operational technology (OT).
A series of press conferences from Rockwell Automation's recent Automation Fair provided some valuable insights from some of the top executives in the industry to outline just how the future of automation technology will be shaped by current challenges—and solutions—presented by the workforce and from increasingly connected environments.
Innovative Technology to Improve Productivity
The supply chain issues brought on by a number of factors of the last several years, along with growing needs for mass customization and flexibility of manufacturing systems, present obstacles to many manufacturers. In some cases, this may be extreme enough that when a major disruption happens (such as that sudden shift to work-from-home), a manufacturer with no intentionally designed ability to make sudden shifts will find themselves closing their doors with no warning.
Flexible manufacturing systems, like this one from Flexlink at Automation Fair, can use automation to keep up with constantly changing market demands and external disruptions.
Perhaps a further condensation of the issue may also be succinctly summarized: the workforce. When any company, large or small, finds itself operating with a minimum capacity, the ability to make sudden shifts and develop new skills in new avenues is simply impossible. With a full, highly-trained staff, it can be far easier to change or add new operational methods without entirely shutting down existing systems.
The solution is to expand productivity. But this is simpler to say than to accomplish.
The direction many companies turn to for enhanced productivity is cloud solutions, which has been the subject of countless articles and webinars from nearly every OEM.
Proponents of cloud solutions propose three distinct areas of productivity impact that must be weighed for both benefits and challenges.
The business impact of cloud reliance uses the constant availability of data, even when workforce is reduced, to make decisions with live data, and even to allow the operation of the technology from remote areas, making the hiring pool much wider for your workforce needs.
The employee impact brought about by the reliability and flexibility of cloud solutions indeed allows more work-from-home benefits, including work/life balancing and reductions in costs of gas and time for commuting. This is especially important in the event of some future inevitable disruption that causes us to majorly shift our mindset of business operation.
The technological impact of cloud solutions lies in the benefit of having teams of developers improving and advancing technology on a continual basis. In this area, we hear the familiar words of VR/AR, cobots, digital twins, and AI products. Although there is not enough time to explain each here and now, the impact is real for many users.
Operational Technology (OT) Security
A roadmap for success in the world of cybersecurity for industrial networks was presented by Rachel Conrad, VP and General Manager of Services at Rockwell along with Nichole Darden-Ford, Rockwell’s VP of Global Information Security and Chief Information Security Officer.
Contrary to the viewpoint of many who do not understand IT/OT and simply assume that the process must be very complicated, Rockwell execs assume the stance that getting started with OT security is a major key. “Be brilliant at the basics.”
Edge computing, with specific adaptations just for industrial interfaces, are built with security and operation in mind, like these from Stratus shown at Automation Fair.
Owing to a lack of OT resources for many smaller and medium companies, paired with the legacy devices that fill shop floors across the world, this area is a major security risk. But there are five key pillars that build a foundation of success. None of them are easy, but getting started with any of these steps begins the process.
Executive leadership and funding as an appropriate level to research and understand the IT/OT needs.
A dedicated team with expertise brings multiple viewpoints with multiple concerns. IT needs policy and security. OT is more interested in minimizing production disruptions. They must work together.
Single governance and policy means applying standards that are consistent across areas. A recommendation is to begin with the NIST Cybersecurity Framework if you don’t have a plan in place already.
An ecosystem of trusted partners can ease the burden of understanding and implementing everything yourself. But the caveat is that the ecosystem must be scaled for your own size and scale of business. Not every partner system is identical.
One unified cyber risk program across a company which, again, may rely on existing programs established by NIST and other organizations unless one has already been defined.
The Future of Automation
A projected look into what we can expect to see in the future was presented by Rockwell’s Matheus Bulho, VP and GM of Production Automation, and Dan DeYoung, VP of Product Management.
Certainly pinpointing exactly what the future of specific technology might look like is impractical and futile; look at the designers of Star Trek props who imagined flip phones existing in the mid-2200s. We have now surpassed that technology. Regardless, we can absolutely make predictions on how we will emphasize production, safety, and efficiency in the future world.
First, we look to simplify production environments. We can do this by examining machines to determine complex mechanics that can be replaced by simpler components, or by eliminating redundant tasks and automating others. Simplifying the flow of data also means using the right communication technologies to allow floor-collected data to drive both control and business decisions, reducing the extra time spent by business teams to collect and monitor that data which is already in use for control logic.
While a robot performs a sample operation at Automation Fair, critical data is collected both for control and for business analysis in this system by PTC.
Second, asset management is key. Not only must the machines be accurately maintained and monitored to increase life and uptime, but the control systems that drive them can be better managed with implementation of version control (like GIT management) and team communications. Even before installation, technology like digital twins and simulation can predict obstacles and failures before they happen, resulting in massive savings.
Finally, risks can be reduced by utilizing integrated safety systems, unified plans for cybersecurity operations, and creating more reliable systems to reduce impacts on the environment, society, and the demand for governance intervention.
Automation technology will keep evolving, but taking steps to design modern policies and systems—even just taking those small first steps—can work to increase flexibility in hard times and reduce risks to security and safety even in good times.