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As the world of industrial operations technology becomes more digitized, manufacturers must adopt an ecosystem approach to drive more productivity.
Industrial operations -- also known as operational technology (OT) -- is a complex world made of a range of machines, electromechanical devices, manufacturing systems and other industrial equipment. These are connected and controlled through systems like programmable logic controllers (PLCs), distributed control systems, and supervisory control and data acquisition systems, which are largely proprietary and not easily networked.
IT systems, which deal with data control and management, are being integrated into the OT systems in a process known as IT/OT convergence, providing more complete views of an entire enterprise's operation. This has led to the emergence of Industry 4.0, an application of advanced technologies such as AI, advanced analytics, robotics, automation and IIoT on manufacturing to improve productivity accomplished with better efficiency.
However, the promise of Industry 4.0 to deliver greater efficiency and productivity has not been met, according to Mark Freedman, ecosystem senior lead at Tulip, a connected worker software firm. The industrial operations world needs to adopt an ecosystem approach like the IT ecosystem that has developed over the last two decades to better fulfill this promise.
Freedman spoke at Operations Calling 2023, a conference for Tulip users held at the company's headquarters in Somerville, Mass., on Sept. 12.
Industrial operations ecosystems far behind consumer
Industrial operations needs to follow the model of the ecosystem iPhone apps, which depends on a variety of technologies, including the device manufacturers, connectivity providers, streaming services and app developers, Freedman said.
The difference between the consumer cellphone ecosystem and the ecosystem for industrial operations is "night and day," he said.
Operations needs to build an ecosystem around the hardware and machines that should be connected, the data acquisition and IoT layer, and enterprise applications, Freedman said.
"The concept of ecosystems in industrial operations is not new; it's not rocket science. But why is now the right time to think that it can be effective and is here to stay?" he said. "Industrial operations is a big category with a lot of diversity and a lot of complexity. And no one, two or five vendors can solve all the challenges and problems that need to be solved within the disparate operations and plants."
But building an open and organic OT ecosystem is a huge challenge for U.S. manufacturing, where there are big variations in how manufacturers run their operations, even within the same company.
Most U.S. manufacturers have facilities with 100 or fewer employees. They don't have the budgets to implement a system from one big industrial vendor that provides everything they need, Freedman said. They have brownfield environments of various applications and technologies. They must get creative to build an ecosystem from these to solve their problems.
"They have to use things that their company has invested in over the previous decades -- software, hardware or both," he said. "Quite often, going into these brownfield environments, the ecosystem approach is one way to make them effective, efficient. … [It] provides quicker time to value to their end users."
Robotic systems work alongside 1930s systems
The difficulties of the industrial operations digital transformation were pointed out by Audrey Van De Castle, director of digital transformation at Stanley Black & Decker, who spoke at Operations Calling.
Stanley Black & Decker has been struggling to automate processes in its facilities, she said -- one of which has 1930s vintage equipment and robotic welding systems on the same shop floor.
"There are four different types of PLCs that are all proprietary. We can't connect them together, and they can't talk to each other," Van De Castle said. "So there are a lot of integration challenges and proprietary silos. If we want manufacturing to be a competitive advantage for the U.S., those silos have to go away."
One problem is that the industrial operations space is dominated by a few large vendors that provide proprietary systems, she said.
"You don't want to have a Rockwell Automation license or an Allen-Bradley license -- all these systems that you have to pay for -- but they don't work together," Van De Castle said.
No one vendor can do it alone
The giant global industrial operations vendor Rockwell Automation is part of an open ecosystem, according to Blake Moret, CEO at Rockwell Automation, who spoke at the Digital Factory conference held in Boston on Sept. 13.
Rockwell is a pioneer in connecting industrial machinery. But now the ecosystem is moving to an OT and IT convergence that uses open APIs and Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture to exchange data between software applications, Moret said.
Mark FreedmanEcosystem lead, Tulip
"The hardware is still very important. But it's about exchanging the data between the different applications and doing it in an open way, because every installation on Earth is heterogeneous," he said. "Even if they love Rockwell, there are different vintages of equipment, and there's probably Siemens or Schneider in there as well."
The market is fragmented with new players and new innovations. All options should be on the table for manufacturers as they contemplate a digital transformation, he said.
"If you're a manufacturer and you're considering all the ways to get from Point A to Point B, you're not just looking at the traditional suppliers' automation equipment," Moret said. "If one of the hyperscaler providers or an IT startup has a clever way to do something, you should consider that. And we, as the traditional suppliers, better be comparing ourselves against all the alternatives."
The most successful industrial operations digital transformation will happen only if the technology providers in the ecosystem can understand a customer's problems and provide applications that address their specific industry needs, he said.
"The pieces don't just come together without understanding the problem or the challenge that needs to be solved," Moret said. "It's the combined technology and expertise working together."
An open ecosystem of partners will be essential, he said.
"It's just plain arrogant to think that one company can do it all," Moret said. "Technology moves too fast. There are too many good ideas that are coming organically from all over. So the companies that win are going to have more flexibility and have the humility to recognize that they don't have all the answers."
Jim O'Donnell is a senior news writer who covers ERP and other enterprise applications for TechTarget Editorial.