March 2008

Techs vs. geeks: Making IT work

By Ellen Fussell Policastro

"Years ago, I worked in an organization that combined automation and IT, and somebody got the bright idea to put everyone under the same manager. That manager went off and came back with a 'brilliant' suggestion. He announced they'd all change everyone's job title to analyst. One of the automation engineers stood up and said, 'If you call me an analyst, I quit.' He wanted to be respected as a professional engineer."

Eric Cosman, an engineering solutions architect at Dow Chemical, offers one anecdote that points to what all engineers and IT folk are struggling with in today's software manufacturing environment-respecting the other's turf to work as a cohesive team. "I think respect is at the top of the list" when it comes to engineers and IT professionals, he said. "My experience has been people have a feeling (whether right or wrong) they don't get respect from the other party."

In August 2007, InTech covered the dilemma of communication between engineers and IT professionals. In a nutshell, engineers want fast knowledgeable answers to their problems, while IT professionals want patience, courtesy, and respect of their expertise.  (archive.isa.org/intech/20070804)

Companies like Dow are making strides in fostering this respect with programs that allow cross-training and cross-functioning among the groups, giving both sides the opportunity to wear the others' shoes.
 
"There's nothing magical about this," Cosman said. "We look for people who look like they have a predisposition or potential to see both sides of the picture. We give them opportunities to work on both sides. We have a large program underway to develop, package, and deliver a standard automation solution from our preferred vendor. We do some packaging and configuration that we buy from the vendor, and deliver it as a standard solution. Our current project manager comes to us from an IT organization. She's participating now in kind of a cross-functional training program. She has good skills in project management, so she'll learn a lot about automation without being an automation engineer. She will learn what's involved with industrial IT."

Different technical outlooks
 
The big issue also lies in the way both groups use similar computer-based type systems, but for drastically different applications. "People who do automation work have a different outlook from people who work on the IT office side," said Steve Pflantz, an instrument controls engineer at CRB Consulting in St. Louis. "From an automation standpoint, systems have to be more reliable and robust, uptime is mission critical. You can't have software systems shutting down on you, they have to run constantly," he said. "In an office environment, sometimes it's slow; you can't have that in a control application.  You want to something more deterministic and repeatable."

"The whole mentality is different," he said. "The automation person is focused on systems that keep plants operating and keeps them from blowing up. The IT people have to realize you can't reboot, you can't load every patch that comes along. It's a whole focus on system stability. The office or IT guys are not looking at 24/7 operation. They can accept sluggish performance when they put in a new patch and update software. In a control environment, putting in new software is a more rigorous task."

Plugging in no easy task

"The whole essence of this thing is there is a control world and an IT world, and they're coming together because they're all using the same basic network infrastructure, all Windows-based networking systems," Pflantz said. "But they can't just plug in together. You can pass data back and forth. But it's not that easy. Then you have these two systems and two cultures." The topic is so crucial to productivity, in fact, a manufacturing IT conference this May will focus specifically on bringing this group of people together to address issues related to manufacturing, automation IT, and data interconnection collection. 

"We see a need for people that can support those systems of hardware and that also can be an interface between the two worlds," Pflantz said. The problem comes in if you're on the IT side, you're looking at all this control hardware, and it looks like standard network stuff. How do you get someone to support that infrastructure? You can't just load the new patch and reboot. How can we fill the role to maintain and support these systems? Do we take the automation person and teach him IT, or do we take the IT person and teach automation? They have to understand both sides-the reason why a control system has to operate a certain way on a network system and why the vendor has certain requirements on strict standards on hardware. Conversely, in an IT office environment, you can mix and match hardware.

The task at hand is to figure out how to support the merging of these two entities. The technology is common. You cannot hook it together and magically it works. You have to manage the IT and control side. There has to be a person that understands the function and operation of both sides. We have a new breed of IT person that has automation smarts.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ellen Fussell Policastro is the associate editor of InTech.  Her e-mail is efussellpolicastro@isa.org.


Conference plans collaborative solution

Industry has recognized there is still a problem with the control systems and IT cultures coming together. They do not mesh efficiently. They have different outlooks on life. How do you bridge the gap, and how do we train a new type of technical person? The answer might be a new IT function and automation specialist. Or you take an automation person and teach them IT systems. 

"The criticality is more on the control system side. It's not the smarts and capability, but the cultural understanding," said Steve Pflantz, an instrument controls engineer at CRB Consulting in St. Louis. "We're realizing this is a training need. Both sides need to understand the other better. There needs to be a group that bridges the gap-someone that can look at both directions and bring them together."

The Manufacturing IT Conference, 20-21 May 2008 at the Wyndham Cleveland @ Playhouse Square in Cleveland, will provide a forum for information technology and manufacturing automation professionals on the issues, challenges, and best-practices related to the integration of IT and manufacturing automation functions. (For more information, visit www.isa.org/mfgit.)

One of the goals at the conference will be to identify and define case studies and approaches in creating collaborative work environments as well as technology, tools, and standards.

IT professionals with manufacturing responsibility and manufacturing engineers in IT departments will gain the most out of this conference. IT or manufacturing automation professionals in transition also will find something worthwhile. 

"Why is this still a popular topic? I ask because we've been doing this at Dow for so many years, what can we possibly have to say? But it's popular because other people may not be as well along as we are," said Eric Cosman, engineering solutions architect at Dow Chemical and one of the planned presenters at the forum. "Yet it's not something you can fix by making organizational changes. You have to decide what you'll do and there is a partnership between automation and IT. You have to be able to work on and focus on shared accountability and shared vision," he said. "It's a practice people are always on the lookout for - what works and what doesn't work. I hope I'll be able to bring philosophy and case studies of what we've tried and what worked."