BY: JULIE BERRETH/TURNBUCKLE STRATEGY & DESIGN
Looking forward, successful convergence of information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) will be a driving force behind innovative business-growth initiatives. Through the integration of these two disciplines, companies can utilize real data to drive efficiencies and productivity that increase the overall quality of products, as well as the processes in which they are created. This will accelerate product-to-market times and boost demand, while reducing costs and risks. IT/OT convergence also creates future opportunities for economic growth that strengthen communities.
Operational technology brings value to industry, as well as its workers, through sensors, software and the devices used in manufacturing, e.g., manufacturing execution systems (MES) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). Information technology, on the other hand, supports the technologies used to process the required information to manufacture products and run the business; examples include enterprise resource planning (ERP) or customer relationship management (CRM).
Overcoming challenges to merging what have traditionally been competing priorities for the two groups is vital to successful convergence. Strategies, governance and protocols, along with security and data must be aligned. Teams must be open to new opportunities to extend their skill sets. Leadership will play a foundational role in this process by facilitating an atmosphere of collaboration and open communication, managing stakeholders and demonstrating the interim benefits to all parties.
The following two Inland Northwest companies are leading the charge with significant examples of how IT/OT convergence creates competitive advantages and fuels innovation.
For Litehouse, a longtime food and beverage manufacturer, necessity was the mother of invention. In order to meet vendor demands and increase sales positioning, the company needed to improve the quality and accuracy of package labeling by utilizing data and reducing manual processes. Other contributing factors included numerous variations in labeling requirements for individual vendors, as well as bridging the skills gap at their five manufacturing plants in Idaho, Michigan and Utah.
In the previous methods, workers did not have access to a single source of data and had to rely on manual processes. For shipping-box labeling, vendor-specific information was manually punched into a kiosk at the end of the production line and labels were spray coded onto each box. Pillow prints required changing out plates on a system similar to an old-style letter press for proper embossing. This was both time consuming and prone to errors that ultimately drove up costs and limited product distribution.
Vendor-proposed solutions were costly and inefficient, requiring the creation of a combined 900+ label images and templates, as well as the purchase of additional equipment and software licenses. These solutions did not provide any flexibility for adapting to new or changing requirements, so Litehouse leadership set about the task of researching in-house alternatives.
According to Derek Christensen, Senior Director of Information Technology, the company assembled a select team of IT resources, developers, end users and a business analyst who worked together to define the project’s requirements. Through this collaboration, the team found they were able to build and deploy an affordable print-and-apply labeling system for two forms of packaging by combining capabilities of existing IT and OT systems. Christensen says this plan was also scalable and highly maintainable, taking only five months to fully implement.
The new systems began with uploading label data into Litehouse’s primary system of record to create a single source of truth. From there, vendor-specific job data is pulled from the linked ERP program where labels are generated using only seven different templates. The labels pass through centralized security firewalls as they are sent to the plant printers where workers have the flexibility to edit on the fly before packaging is complete.
According to Christensen, the implementation of Litehouse’s print-and-apply label system through IT/OT convergence has resulted in overwhelming benefits, not just for business operations, but for employees as well. Workers can now edit labels directly on the production line, decreasing operator set-up times from ten minutes to ten seconds for every job run. This new smart-manufacturing environment has expanded the company’s sales positioning by giving them the ability to meet the demands of existing customers and gain new ones more effectively.
Immediate cost savings included tens of thousands of dollars in equipment purchases and a 50% reduction in software-license fees. The new system created consistency and accuracy that increased Litehouse’s credibility, thereby generating greater product demand by demonstrating their ability to meet exact vendor requirements for how the product arrives.
Litehouse’s leadership was instrumental in fostering an inclusive environment of open communication and collaboration that bridged the relationships between IT and OT. Short-term benefits were demonstrated to all stakeholders early in the process to inspire and empower the group. Conscientious management of the team and their tasks throughout the process resulted in an innovative solution that would positively impact the entire business going forward.
HECLA MINING COMPANY
In contrast to the previous case study, Hecla Mining Company’s IT/OT convergence was motivated by their commitment to improving safety, while creating efficiencies and reducing costs in order to stay competitive. Hecla needed the ability to perform mining tasks remotely to enhance the well-being of their workers, while increasing productivity. Controlling equipment and related maintenance costs by reducing downtime and unnecessary servicing was also a key element to achieving business objectives.
Brock Tenney, IT Operations Supervisor, recognized the company had the technical ability to implement a solution. The challenge was their IT teams had limited familiarity with underground mining and milling processes, or the equipment and tools used. Conversely, their underground teams understood the operational aspects of mining and milling, but lacked the knowledge of computer networking and communications, the critical components required to reach safety and efficiency targets. Tenney realized that for this solution to be achieved, they would have to pull from the strengths of both the OT and IT staff members.
Hecla knew the network solution had to not only be suitable to the harsh underground environment, but robust enough to handle industrial equipment operations, as well as affordable and easily deployable. In addition, it had to allow for local decisions underground and IT administrative controls and security. Hecla began the process of gathering stakeholders from both teams to work together to identify and define their strategy and tactics.
Through collaboration and communication, the team chose off-the-shelf components to comprise a solution that would address all of their needs, and ultimately would require almost no intervention from IT for deployment. Battery-powered distribution points were daisy-chained from Hecla’s existing network with powered-fiber cabling throughout the mines to relay data and pull power from their main distribution points. Wireless access points using Power over Ethernet (PoE) technology minimized the number of cables that had to be strung due to its ability to carry the electrical current necessary for the operation of each piece of equipment through the data cables, rather than by power cords.
With this solution completed through the successful convergence of IT/OT, Hecla has increased security and gained better control. They now have the ability to perform autonomous and tele-remote mining, as well as execute network-based remote blasting from within offices on the surface. Personnel, along with environmental conditions such as temperature and gas levels, are monitored in real time, optimizing safety and reducing related risks. Equipment is tracked and scheduled for routine maintenance based on actual data and has reduced costs while creating efficiencies.
Tenney, who led the convergence team, believes leadership must be willing to be bold, try new solutions and demonstrate how they can improve work processes to create a global benefit. Tenney says curious people ask questions that can be a catalyst for change. Underground-worker concerns about the level of monitoring were quickly alleviated once they were able to use the tools and see the benefits for themselves. In fact, former employees who stay in touch with Tenney have expressed that without these types of tools and technology at their new jobs, they are less productive and feel less empowered. He also credits the project’s success to setting and managing expectations, along with open communication that promotes an environment of contribution and collaboration to make better products and improve lives.
With attrition trends widening the skills gap, businesses must turn to technology and automated processes to grow effectively. By design, the integration of these technological disciplines can deliver benefits and create new growth opportunities for companies. The new roles created by IT/OT initiatives help employers attract new employees, as well as retrain, advance and retain their current staffing to create endless possibilities for innovation and economic progress.
The North Idaho IT Professionals Association is making a difference in the IT industry by enabling competitive advantages that act as a cornerstone of economic development in the community. Learn more about how you can get involved at northidahoit.com/membership-sign-up.