By Jash Bansidhar, Managing Director, Advantech Europe

In historical terms, OT (operational technology) and IT (integrated technology) fulfil very separate roles at manufacturing facilities. But today these two entities are coming together in the edge due to the inherent efficiencies and competitive gain this strategy provides. The challenge is to ensure convergence takes place in an optimised, cost-effective way without major disruption to ongoing operations.By taking advantage of AI software algorithms it is possible to process OT information and make decisions. In the edge, companies like Advantech play a critical role because of the need for computing technology upon which lots of applications can run. The edge is therefore a very important decision-making position for companies in the machine building and end-user market.

Once a manufacturer has the possibility to accelerate its decisions, it can improve both productivity and efficiency, attaining genuine competitive gain. In any case, manufacturing companies today have to adopt this strategy because Europe has a problem recruiting new talent. Manufacturers need the help of new technology and algorithms so they can do more with the same amount of people, achieving high-level decision-making that delivers market advantage.

Digital inspector

By way of example, let’s consider a customer that makes digital inspection systems. In the production environment there are people with 30-40 years of manufacturing experience. However, when these people retire, how can the manufacturer retain their knowledge for future generations?

A good way is to try to digitalise that knowledge via machine learning technologies based on AI algorithms. At the edge, AI is very important in delivering information that was previously in the heads of retired staff. With a ‘digital inspector’ running at the edge or cloud (based on AI algorithms), manufacturing plants keep that knowledge on-board.

Of course, to make this happen, it is necessary to use computing with GPUs, which can take advantage of video analytics data, for example, to ‘learn’ the task. As a result, there is no longer any need to program; manufacturing plants can simply observe, converge and optimise. Running the system constantly will provide a near-perfect decision-making process.

Brownfield sites

So how can traditional manufacturers take advantage of this technology and become ‘smart’, particularly in Europe, which has many ‘brownfield’ manufacturing sites? Well, assuming the OT investments are up to date, it is possible to implement layers of IoT technology, edge apps, communications protocols and data acquisition capabilities, thus digitalising brownfield sites and bringing them into the new era of manufacturing.

When Europe first began discussing the Industry 4.0 revolution, the immediate question was how to create an ‘open’ solution that was not proprietary to avoid vendor lock-in. The initial step was to create technical compatibility and integrate it into an open and transparent environment where further innovation could take place.

Around six years ago, when organisations mooted the idea of IoT implementation in a production environment, the main discussion centred on how manufacturers could connect their devices, machines and equipment. How could they increase their level of analytics compared with previous solutions, which were based on SCADA or MES applications? And how was it possible to enable more applications in the OT field to be sure of an attractive return on investment (ROI)? The IoT is based on open PC technology, something with which the IT world has been familiar for decades, but not the OT world.

Less complexity

Today, the concept of creating a technical layer on top of a brownfield manufacturing site is less complex because there are many stacks that integrate proprietary hardware into the IoT field. Also, protocols have become more standardised, as have the physical hardware interfaces, while open technology is more commodity-led than proprietary technology, so investment becomes easier.

The technical part historically represented the value of the business case, but today companies no longer discuss technical compatibility because it’s already there. Instead, they talk about how to create an end-to-end connection between the enterprise level and the edge (because a company like Advantech can solve things below the edge). Advantech can supply the hardware and software stacks and get the IoT platform running at the edge; on the public cloud. But how can manufacturing plants connect that to the enterprise level?

This discussion is happening today with companies who provide management, MES and asset performance software. As a result, system integrators are looking to enable business applications that watch operational applications. It means the information to create an end-to-end solution requires connecting at the edge.

The great unburdening

As these technologies already exist, it unburdens integrators who are implementing business applications or integrators who are implementing OT applications in the edge. Advantech is already part of this unburdening, reducing the complexity of solution integration. It’s a big benefit because once a manufacturer can work with a company that can unburden the technical part of the process, it becomes possible to accelerate. In short, the same group within the organisation can deliver the advice and consultancy, and set out the availability of hardware/software specifications and platforms.

That interconnection to the enterprise level is already happening in the IoT edge platform that Advantech has for all the major players. Also, Advantech is typically agnostic for whichever enterprise application is running, so there is no vendor lock-in. Manufacturers can choose whatever enterprise application or cloud infrastructure they need, which is a critical enabler of IoT solutions.

Business application integration

In summary, there is now less complexity in implementing IoT applications and providing a layer on top of existing brownfield manufacturing sites. Today, it’s about how to provide integration with business applications.

The challenge is that most IT companies are very good at running an enterprise, ERP or asset performance application. However, if they require integration to observe the manufacturing level they will need the log of integrator discussions, consultancy discussions, hardware gathering decisions and so on. Here, IT system integrators who team up with Advantech can unburden themselves, simply because Advantech takes care of the layer with which they need to connect. This is of great added value because Advantech has the hardware stacks, software stacks, know-how and experience in manufacturing. For the IT system integrator who co-operates with Advantech, it becomes possible to solve end users’ enterprise apps very quickly.

IT companies have been supplying enterprise software applications for decades. Now, they simply need to engage with a company like Advantech to complete the last mile for OT implementation.