Today, many mining companies are focused on the convergence of traditional information technology (IT) and automation-focused operational technology (OT)—two areas that historically have been separate. The industry’s efforts are still evolving, but many are far enough along to provide some insights into how companies can make convergence work. It is clear that bringing the two areas together under one governance framework is a key to success.
However, doing so can be difficult, largely because of the way that OT has traditionally operated. Historically, OT’s focus has been on keeping production going, rather than implementing rigorous management processes and policies, which is at the core of the IT group’s work. As a result, the maturity of the OT group’s governance typically lags behind that of the IT group. For the two to work together, companies need to transform the OT organization’s processes and bring them into alignment with IT.
This effort should begin with a clear view of where the organization is and where it wants to go. This can be captured in an automation master plan, which looks at factors such as current automation and production assets, automation and industrial IT architecture, connectivity issues, operational procedures and documentation. Using these insights, companies can create a convergence plan that spells out how OT will operate in the future—that is, how the maturity level will be improved so that it can work effectively with IT. Some of the key actions involved in this transformation are:
Map all processes. This will allow the company to understand the scope of what will be covered by automation. The mapping exercise should include defining how each process will be performed in the future; which tools and applications each will use; and the personnel that will operate and be accountable for the processes. This mapping should go into significant detail and typically encompass at least three levels—corporate IT, industrial IT (such as Manufacturing Execution Systems and scheduling), and automation that includes supervision, control and instrumentation.
Define the operating model. This involves determining how centralized the organization will be—which processes will be managed by a central group and which will be handled locally by individual sites. Companies should also determine which activities will be insourced or executed externally. The external option is increasingly attractive, with the ability to have technology- enabled processes delivered “as-a-service” by an outside partner. This can help reduce costs and enable the internal technology organization to spend less time on detailed, routine tasks and more on strengthening overall productivity and performance.
Identify key organizational interfaces. The interfaces between the new IT-OT organization and other parts of the company are critical to the effectiveness of the new approach. For example, imagine an IT-OT organization working to standardize on a few suppliers that offer the right technology. If this is not communicated to the procurement group, that group will make purchasing decisions based on price, rather than platform standardization. This has the potential to erode efforts to streamline and improve operations, increases the total cost of ownership and reduces the benefits of convergence.
The human factor
People are clearly the most important factor in IT-OT convergence. Here, companies need to focus on people-related gaps in two areas. First, the convergence of IT and OT may drive a need for new processes and roles. For example, convergence means merging IT and OT architectures with the full vertical integration of technology from the ERP to the sensor level. This makes the company’s industrial control systems (ICS) more vulnerable to cyberattacks that can potentially come through central IT all the way down to a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA), a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), a Distributed Control System (DCS) or some other automation system. Thus, the company will need new cybersecurity processes and, most likely, a cybersecurity specialist on the automation team. As convergence continues, companies need to be on the lookout for such new requirements.
The second gap to watch for is the need for different skills in the new environment. With the convergence of IT and OT—and digital transformation in general—traditional instrumentation specialists and operations personnel will probably need to be re-deployed. Typically, the new technologies brought in to monitor equipment and model the process will be unfamiliar to them. Companies will also need to consider training people on new technologies and standards for things such as alarm management, wireless systems, statistical multivariate monitoring, similarity-based models and other advanced topics. Many of these traditionally are part of graduate engineering courses found in academia, but they will now need to be included in a company’s IT-OT training curriculum.
Finally, change management is always an important part of a transformation effort, and projects to bring together IT and OT are no exception. Indeed, without change management, the convergence initiative is likely to yield disappointing results. For example, consider the difficulty of introducing smart instrumentation in mining. Such instrumentation is already standard in the chemicals and oil and gas industries, but bringing it into mining has been a big challenge. The problem is not the technology, which is already proven and available. Instead, the biggest barrier is that mining personnel have not been prepared for this change so they resist adopting the new technologies.
Overall, creating the converged IT-OT governance framework can seem like a puzzle. However, miners that solve it can achieve unprecedented cost reduction and performance improvement through better technology utilization and improved workforce collaboration.