• By Bill Lydon
  • InTech
Integrated manufacturing and production
New information technology and operational technology models

By Bill Lydon

The relationship between information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) is a topic of formal and informal discussions at industry forums, user groups, events, and tradeshows with many thoughts and opinions. There are clearly changes going on in organizations with different business models and new technology, concepts, and challenges that are driving these discussions, pilot projects, and system changes. There are some strong views about the IT and OT relationship, including:

  • cooperative separation
  • cooperative integration
  • IT managing OT except for real-time machine and process controls
  • new hybrid groups

Based on discussions with many users, the relationship between IT and OT in organizations seems to be at different stages. However, the trend does appear to be the functional integration of IT and OT, regardless of the organizational structure, to achieve improved manufacturing and production.

What is OT?

Operational technology is typically defined as the hardware and software dedicated to detecting or causing changes in physical processes through direct monitoring or control of physical devices, including machines, robots, production lines, valves, pumps, and other elements of production. The actual control is responding to production with real-time controllers, such as programmable logic controllers (PLCs), distributed control systems (DCSs), machine controllers, robots, process controllers, and other devices that monitor and control physical production. OT in many organizations also encompasses supervisory control and data acquisition systems, human-machine interface displays, historians, and remote terminal units. These systems typically communicate using industrial control networks, such as Modbus, EtherNET/IP, Profinet, and EtherCAT. More recently wireless sensors communicate using ISA100, WirelessHART, or proprietary methods.

What is IT?

An early definition of information technology appeared in the November 1958 Harvard Business Review article, "Management in the 1980s" by Harold J. Leavitt and Thomas L. Whisler:

"The new technology does not yet have a single established name. We shall call it information technology. It is composed of several related parts. One includes techniques for processing large amounts of information rapidly, and it is epitomized by the high-speed computer. A second part centers around the application of statistical and mathematical methods to decision-making problems; it is represented by techniques like mathematical programing, and by methodologies like operations research. A third part is in the offing, though its applications have not yet emerged very clearly; it consists of the simulation of higher-order thinking through computer programs."

This is still a pretty good fundamental definition. It includes the term operations research. A broad definition of operations research is determining the maximum profit, performance, yield or minimum loss, risk, or cost of some real-world objective. Industrial engineering and operations research applied to industrial and process manufacturing combine two disciplines focused on the operation of complex systems to develop better systems and operational procedures. Today's new technologies are enabling achievement of these goals.

Integrated manufacturing

Manufacturing and process industries have been pursuing the concept of integrating the entire business, including product design, procurement, supply chain management, production, maintenance, and outbound logistics, for a long time. The idea of computer integrated manufacturing has been a vision since the 1970s. It is defined as the integration of the total manufacturing enterprise by using integrated systems and data communication coupled with new managerial philosophies to improve organizational and personnel efficiency. In the 1970s and 1980s, some large automotive and aerospace manufacturers implemented a small number of projects, but the systems and technology at that time were cumbersome, expensive, and unreliable. Another major challenge was the integration of components from different suppliers, including PLCs, DCSs, CNC machine tools, conveyors, and robots using different communications protocols. There were also competing data interchange and protocol standards between the U.S. and Europe, which was counterproductive.

Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, et al.

More recently, a progressive line of thinking has developed in applying technology to improve manufacturing with the integration of all aspects of production and commerce across company boundaries for greater efficiency. It is exemplified by Industry 4.0, smart manufacturing, Industrial Internet of Things, and other initiatives pursuing a holistic automation, business information\, and manufacturing execution architecture. The goals are significantly higher productivity, efficiency, and self-managing production processes where people, machines, equipment, logistics systems, and work in process communicate and cooperate with each other directly. This vision includes new technologies and architectures to achieve low-cost mass production efficiencies for make-to-order manufacturing of quantity one.

Single view

IT/OT convergence promotes a single view of an enterprise's information and gives every person, machine, sensor, PLC, process controller, actuator, motor control center, and other device accurate data and information in an actionable context at the right time to improve operational efficiencies and lower production costs.

Decision in real time

Decisions will be made in real time with higher levels of confidence, because more information will be available regarding the event or condition. Management of an event in an IT/OT converged architecture will execute as a closed-loop process, optimizing the factors of production. This includes customer order flow and mix, supply chain, manufacturing, production processes, outbound logistics, and customer service.

Lean manufacturing ecosystem

Going beyond a single manufacturing company, production and logistics processes are integrated intelligently across company boundaries, creating a real-time lean manufacturing ecosystem that is more efficient and flexible. This facilitates smart value-creation chains that include all of the life-cycle phases of the product from the initial product idea, development, production, use, and maintenance to recycling. In this way, the ecosystem can satisfy customer wishes for everything from product idea to recycling to be responsive and continually make improvements.

Common platforms

IT and OT groups traditionally developed in two separate communities where almost all of the communication, hardware, and software were specific to that community, resulting in complex IT and OT systems integration. The new architecture, enabled by the proliferation of communication standards, powerful processors, web services, and open source software, provides a common environment for IT and OT collaboration and integration. IT and OT groups now share fundamentals in communications and network architecture, which simplifies the transport of data across systems, thus the technology divide between IT and OT is closing.

Organizational and system evolution

Applying new technologies to achieve more efficient industrial and process manufacturing companies leads to functional changes. The new integrated manufacturing and enterprise architectures led by real-time enterprise resource planning systems integrate plant floor middleware software functions into edge devices, enterprise, and cloud computing. A more traditional way to express this is OT is being integrated into IT. But this does not describe all the new possibilities of integrated systems and new computing in edge devices. Progressive companies are exploring the new functionality with organizational changes and new systems by implementing pilot projects. The integration of IT and OT brings the ability to actively monitor the field performance of complex machines and their subcomponents to better understand manufacturing and process operation, contributing to more effective continuous improvement programs. In addition there will be greater confidence in production outcomes that will improve forecasts.

Industry discussion

Converging IT and OT to create more effective operations is being discussed by many users, and some are making changes to be more efficient manufacturers. These are some thoughts from manufacturing companies.

An example of an organizational change was presented at the 2017 Ignition Community Conference by Sugar Creek Packing Co., a diversified and flexible food manufacturer. A company representative discussed how its organization has one person responsible for OT and one for IT, with both reporting to the chief information officer. He described how this improved organizational cooperation and operations over six manufacturing sites with more than 100 PLC and controller devices and more than 15,000 tags.

These thoughts from a Rockwell Automation Perspectives event panel and user presentations illustrate there are varying views about IT/OT. Managers, industry experts, and six users discussed and shared insights about their unique journeys toward creating a connected enterprise. Key comments from the panel discussion included these observations:

  • IT should take the lead to move data securely, delivering it when needed.
  • The challenge is having OT people familiar with the process while understanding business processes.
  • Common data models are required for efficient interchange of data between IT and OT.
  • The key to success is connecting the data through the entire architecture using nonproprietary, open IT standards.
  • One company used to hire control engineers, designers, and mechanical engineers to design motor gearboxes and drive chains. Over the years, it found that hiring model does not work anymore. The control and mechanical design became intertwined, so it shifted to mechatronics engineers who deal in both worlds. That shift is continuing now with the addition of people who understand the physics, analytics, and IT technology.
  • IT provides and manages Ethernet connections to controllers, including configuration control. Automation engineers should not be burdened with networks but focused on improving controls and optimizing automation.

The various views expressed suggest organizations have differing thoughts on organizational and technological approaches.


Leadership manufacturing companies are starting to compete worldwide and use pervasive new technologies. Whatever form the implementation of systems, architectures, and organizational structures, there are commonly expressed goals to improve manufacturing, including competitiveness, productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction. Converged information is being used to optimize fixed and variable assets. Improved operations using real-time data, coupled with analytics, brings many benefits, including lower downtime, reduced energy consumption, and higher overall equipment effectiveness.

As organizations work to benefit from the convergence of IT/OT functions, stakeholders, product owners, and organizational managers must continue to understand new integrated system models and learn from industries that are integrating systems successfully, such as the computer, Internet, and cellphone industries.

On the whole, these new technologies are challenging and empowering control and automation professionals to deliver more value as systems and manufacturing-process subject-matter experts to achieve corporate goals.

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About The Authors

Bill Lydon is an InTech contributing editor with more than 25 years of industry experience. He regularly provides news reports, observations, and insights here and on Automation.com