The terms “Information Technology” (IT) and “Operations Technology” (OT) have come into common use as a means of differentiating between the computers, networks and associated devices in manufacturing and operations and those employed for typical business solutions. Although the IT term has been with us for decades, the OT term has become popular much more recently. It has been loosely defined as “… a category of hardware and software that monitors and controls how physical devices perform.” Hasn’t a very similar definition been traditionally applied to the term “automation?” If so, then how is OT different than automation? The OT term may be “old wine in new bottles,” or perhaps the above definition isn’t adequate.
There is another new trend and associated term to deal with. It is the “Industrial Internet of Things” or IIoT. Also referred to as Industrial Internet, it has been defined as “… incorporating machine learning and big data technology, harnessing the sensor data, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and automation technologies.” (Machine learning and big data are themselves topical subjects that appear often in industry journals and magazines.)
For each of these domains or subject areas, many of the basic computing and communications technologies have been with us for years, although IIoT-related developments may be applying them in new and interesting ways. New technologies are also emerging, particularly in the area of communications and networking.
Labels like IT, OT and IIoT can be useful for descriptive purposes, and to define specific communities. However, this comes with a risk of placing more emphasis on the differences than the commonalities. A possible unfortunate side effect is that dependencies, implications, and challenges may be overlooked. The common fundamental concepts behind IT, OT and IIoT can also correspond to common challenges. Examples include the needs for improved cybersecurity or comprehensive management of complex technology portfolios. With a sufficiently broad perspective it makes little sense to address these and related challenges within a limited context.
If operational systems in manufacturing and processing industries use many of the same or similar technologies that are employed in business or commercial IT solutions, and if the concepts and technologies used in IIoT are applicable to some degree to industrial automation, then why shouldn’t there be more collaboration and cooperation between these domains? If such collaboration is desirable, then what are the barriers or impediments?
Often it comes down to a simple lack of awareness. Those who are working with “emerging” topics such as IIoT may not even be aware of groups or organizations who are focused on more traditional topics such as industrial automation. Conversely, those immersed in traditional disciplines may not have the time or motivation to tracking new trends, or understanding their full implications. If the lack of awareness is the first and most fundamental barrier, then we can address it through communication and outreach. One example of this is a recently opened dialog between the International Society for Automation (ISA) and the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).
Awareness is a prerequisite to collaboration and cooperation. We simply have to get past the labels, and encourage people to engage around common and shared challenges and concerns.