Interoperability in industry: Why is it essential to digitalize the sector?

The digitization of industry requires interoperability to enable the sharing of data and the automation of processes. We delve into how Edge Computing plays a critical role in achieving interoperability by enabling the processing of data at the source, rather than sending it to a centralized location, which can decrease latency, increase security, and improve the scalability of the system.

Smart Manufacturing

What is interoperability? 

Interoperability is basically the ability of two or more systems to work together, to communicate, share data and, in short, to understand each other. This is a key concept especially for companies, where it is essential that their information systems, data and processes can interact with those of their suppliers or customers, because sharing and reusing information is the best way to avoid errors. This interoperability is the last necessary step in the industrial sector to achieve the long-awaited digital transformation and help companies to increase their efficiency, reduce errors and save costs thanks to the overall improvement of their processes.

Relationship between IT/OT in the industry

Today's industry is engaged in automation, digitalization and virtualization of its processes. The use of hardware and software is so common that no business can be understood without them. However, there is still a long way to go in the field of Industry 4.0, and one of the great challenges specifically is interoperability

The goal of this new industry is to increase speed while reducing costs. To make better use of its resources to increase production and quality.  To do so it needs real-time information on everything that happens from the inside, but also from the outside. Data, big data, is that source of information. The problem is that there is so much of it and it comes from such disparate systems and devices (such as a light sensor or a customer management software) that it is not always easy to handle. Then there is the fact that some of these systems are proprietary, while others come from different manufacturers or suppliers, making them so different from each other that they are not always compatible or cannot be integrated. Added to all this is another key factor in the industrial sector, which is the obsolescence of its equipment (in the industrial sector, where much thought is given to durability, most equipment is very old). It is clear, therefore, that convergence between IT and OT systems is the key.

But let's take a look at what these two systems are and how they differ. In short, operational technology (OT) would be the hardware and software, as well as all the management protocols of a given industry; while information technology (IT) are the systems and networks that carry and process the data (servers, storage, communication networks, etc.). Thus, collecting data would be OT, while transforming that data into actionable knowledge is the job of IT. If communication between the two is not fluid, it will be difficult to produce the value that the company needs to evolve and carry out, in a complete and scalable way, this digital transformation. 

IoT sensors, and their data collection capabilities, are one of the keys to interoperability. While OT devices are not normally 'connected' technology, when these IoT sensors are added they become a new way to collect, transfer and analyze data. Edge Computing is key here, because the closer to real time the data feeds are, the faster the business can respond. And speed is not the only advantage of edge computing, as the specialized edge computing platforms themselves are enablers of interoperability, allowing different data sources to easily interact with each other.

Achieving interoperability in the IT/OT sector

Interoperability in industry can be approached from different fronts: Process interoperability (accommodating each department to the way the other works), data interoperability (bringing together data networks to serve, also, OT operations) and physical interoperability (new devices and systems designed to integrate both worlds). 

While it is true that IT systems and OT systems are increasingly converging, and that one is designed for the other and vice versa, especially through the IoT, which connects both worlds, there is still a long way to go. Thus, with regard to the implementation of interoperability in the IT/OT area, three phases or areas of action should be taken into account

  • Organizational: The specialized professionals who handle each of these two areas have normally been separated and confined to their devices or systems. If we want interoperability to be effective, all of them will now also have to interact and handle a common language, since they will have to be in charge of programming, reviewing, extracting data and comparing it with data from other sources. Staff training must be seriously addressed here, to explain to them this new way of working and, in particular, to enable them to apply the new procedures.
  • Technical: We have already mentioned that the area that connects both worlds (IT and OT) is, precisely, the Internet of Things, those sensors integrated in any system that send data to a central database that stores, analyzes and transforms them into actionable information. In other words, it takes the information from OT to IT, where it is analyzed. This point requires an investment not only in technology, but also in knowledge.
  • Operational: The crux of the matter in practice, since operational systems usually use their own protocols that, in turn, have to be recognized and read by the other systems we want to connect. The simplest way to connect all systems with each other may be over the air: wireless communication between operating systems, IoT sensors and information systems. This is a lot of information that can be voluminous, but it has to move extremely fast to be able to use it to really improve operations. This is where edge computing has a lot to say as an enabler of this model.

The importance of security (not just cyber) of IT/OT interoperability

Throughout this implementation process, security, another challenge when implementing IT/OT interoperability in the company, must be kept in mind. And not only cybersecurity, but also, for example, the lack of collaboration between the different human teams (remember that they are specialized professionals who probably had not worked together before), or the lack of global vision on the part of the board or the manager in charge of integration (remember that many of the OT devices may not be connected, so they are invisible to the control panel). Also the age of the different types of systems is an issue, the older the hardware (which almost always lasts longer than the software) the more potential security breaches it may have.

In return for all this effort, IT/OT convergence will give us greater control and visibility across the enterprise, enabling workers to do their jobs more efficiently, and decision makers to implement informed and sound strategies.

Examples of Interoperability or use case

Many supply management or industrial companies are already implementing this total integration of systems through sensors and connectivity solutions. Industry 4.0 itself is based on this premise of integration.

In the case of factories, IT/OT convergence allows organizations to be more efficient in both costs and resources by being able to use sales and inventory data, for example, to manage production or energy. It can also be used to minimize maintenance by being able to apply predictive maintenance. Also in the logistics area, where it will be much easier to adjust production to the availability of transport trucks, for example, and to coordinate deliveries to the millimeter.

At Barbara, we have worked specifically in the segment that deals with the cycle of residential and corporate electrical installations (such as solar panels), their storage and their return to the distribution flow of the power grid. Here, the main need was to be able to control the equipment of different facilities and different manufacturers from a single unified management platform (interoperability), but also to make the system smart in order to facilitate its evolution and decision making in real time (for example, adjusting the flow of use according to the price of energy). 

Barbara's Edge technology for Smart Grid makes it possible to manage different distributed generation assets, regardless of their language or operating model. In this case, the proposed solution also includes Edge Nodes with simple "plug and play" installation that receive data and command inverters, batteries, and other available equipment.

At Barbara, we can help you to achieve interoperability and become more technologically efficient. Ask us how.