Data-driven digitalisation

Online Editor

Malte Berndt explains why the key to efficiency lies in operational technology (OT) communicating with information technology (IT).

The industry changes: skills shortages, emerging developing countries, rising energy costs, supply chain issues; the pressure to increase efficiency is enormous.

After automating production processes, companies are now looking for further ways to increase efficiency. The biggest promise: connecting the operational technology (OT) world to information technology (IT) systems.

But why should you do that? The OT world is not made for being connected to external networks. It is made to work in real time with highly automated robots, using different systems, embedded, PLC, industrial computers. These systems are not prepared to be operated safely on global and public networks. It would be mandatory to ensure absence of interaction with the OT layer to keep it safe and reliable.

If somebody wants to connect this world with the IT world, there must be
a big win. Why else should companies push this quite complex and elaborate activity?

Just to be clear: it is not about process control via IT levels, it is about getting data out. And sometimes in.

In the last years digitisation was much hyped – and it still is. However, benefits are getting clearer. The biggest lever is uptime: if you can understand your machines and processes even better, you are able to be more productive, reduce downtimes, get maintenance right on time as efficient as possible.

With historic data, device manufacturers understand what conditions are beneficial to keep their machines on the highest productivity level.

With live data, reactions times can be reduced. Service technicians know what is going on, what spare parts are needed for repair, or they can even solve issues remotely.

And if both comes together, it can even prevent downtimes – with predictive maintenance.

Great promise but OT needs to be connected

For this to happen, data needs to move from OT to the IT layer. This is the first important step to digitisation and the key to efficiency gains. Many manufacturers are already helping companies with this.

Dräger Safety, for example, is developing gateways to collect data of gas detection devices on OT, forwarding it on IT level. On the one hand, these gateways ensure absence of interaction to keep OT levels safe and reliable. On the other hand, they convert data on IT protocol level as only this data can be used further ways: for big data analysis, either combined with data of different sources or used in many different systems. Protocols such as OPC-UA support the exchange of data.

Cloud versus edge computing

Especially in Europe, the discussion about cloud versus edge computing is ongoing. With state-of-the-art technology, cloud solutions can offer security on the same (or even higher) level as edge or on premise can do. Just think of online banking: this is a public cloud application.

More important is a trustful partner, which is working continuously on its applications, scanning for vulnerabilities, updating third-party libraries, and is ensuring the latest security measures.

But edge computing relates to an important area: If real-time is necessary, cloud-based systems show their weaknesses. This is an OT task anyhow. And it will stay there.

On IT level, cross-manufacturer data can be analysed

What is particularly interesting is that data from different sources can be related to each other instead of looking at them separately. This allows correlations to be identified, in the best case identifying a causal relationship. Companies such as SAP do offer modules, such as their asset performance measurement (APM) module, to collect data from different sources, define alarm rules and run analysis routines. APIs are the easiest way to connect securely to different platforms and to obtain data.

Dräger Safety, together with SRB Consulting Team, developed a solution with cloud-based software interfaces and SAP standard based IoT integration to request and forward data from Dräger’s Gas Detection Connect to SAP’s Asset Performance Management and ERP Plant Maintenance. While Dräger can support with advanced maintenance on its gas detection devices, offer visualisation, maintenance support and device management, the data on SAP level can be used to identify cross-data dependencies. For example: if alarms on gas detectors are triggered by exhaust fumes caused by engines during their start-up, data inside the SAP APM can help to understand root causes and eliminate unnecessary responses by improving the set-up.

The only way is going forward

Mastering this task requires planning and perseverance. But it is worth it as many things will become more efficient. Even the operation of the OT equipment itself: if an asset management system for OT equipment exists, which is needed anyway, tasks at OT level also become more structured, more efficient. Assets are recorded with information about operating systems, version numbers, part and serial numbers, protocols, and other characteristics.

After that the key is to forward OT data to IT levels. As more data finds its way from one world to the other, the ideas and possibilities become more tangible.

Getting there might be challenging but standing still is no option.

Malte Berndt is with Dräger Safety.