Bridging the skills gap
posted by: SolutionsPT
Data hungry technology is now a common feature of manufacturing – used to store data, run automated machinery on the plant floor, track inventory and support distribution.
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This collection and storage of data is intertwined with production processes, so if manufacturers find themselves unable to use those processes, production stops and so does revenue.
With ever increasing network connectivity achievable and the rapid advancement of operational intelligence technologies within the SCADA application space, monitoring these systems and maintaining the high availability levels critical to productivity is becoming progressively complex and, historically, plant management’s concern has been production – not IT.
Historically, production has always trumped IT as a priority for plant managers and the reality is that to manage the infrastructure and applications in this environment, process industry businesses have found themselves scrambling to find the know-how needed to ensure consistent monitoring and disaster resilience.
Corporate IT departments rarely understand the specific requirements of the industrial IT environment, whilst on the plant floor there is a lack of technical expertise about IT infrastructure often in addition to significant resource constraints. As a result, the use of monitoring can be limited at best, simply because there is nobody with the time or expertise to interpret the data – what do those error logs actually mean?
In the fast-paced manufacturing environment, there is often neither the time nor the budget for management to retrain teams or bring newly skilled digital talent on board.
So, how can plant environments deliver predictive and preventative monitoring and maintenance of their automation infrastructure and combine this with a robust, proactive response to rectify abnormal situations which could impact production?
A solution is increasingly being sought in managed services to support these operations and tasks. These outsourced services help to plug the skills gap that is often prevalent within organisations which outsource all the monitoring required for effective preventative maintenance to improve workforce availability. They can also help to protect system health and eliminate the risk of unplanned downtime.
Unlike in-house production engineers, external providers have the dedicated resources to ensure continuous services and high availability of data. Crucially, they can also interpret that data, using it to inform improvements and efficiencies and, in the event of ‘the worst’ happening, they can work quickly to minimise any negative impact on operations.
Modern managed service offerings for industrial IT environments include performance management technology which enables the monitoring of the health and wellbeing of both the physical attributes of hardware and the process attributes of software, meaning abnormal situations to be avoided. Data can be transferred from the plant floor via a secure web connection into a secure Cloud environment, while real-time data can be displayed on an insight dashboard, giving engineers access to unprecedented insights into their operations.
To some, outsourcing disaster resilience to a remote party might sound counter-intuitive at first, but in industrial environments it’s common for backups to be taken and stored in offsite facilities, where they are rarely checked for effectiveness. To implement a successful disaster resilience plan, it is important to understand how long a business can be out of production and how much data would be lost. This can be calculated by looking at the recovery time objectives (RTO) and recovery point objectives (RPO).
It’s a reality that companies often have IT infrastructures which are not robust or secure enough for the operational environment. A recent survey revealed that 40% of manufacturing businesses were less than confident in their organisation’s ability to get up and running again after a critical IT failure.
By contrast, the latest solutions use enterprise-class Hybrid Cloud technology to improve resilience and give users greater protection over their systems and data. Workstations and servers are protected locally across the Local Area Network (LAN) to the appliance and data is then automatically transmitted to the secure cloud, improving fault tolerance whilst reducing the reliance on bandwidth speed.
These solutions deliver a very low RTO because local virtualisation can take place within minutes of a machine failing and backups can be taken and checked by the external team. Instant local virtualisation means that should a machine fail, a replacement can be provided within minutes.
The challenge of skills shortages in manufacturing, along with a continued blurring of the lines between OT and IT are making it difficult for plant environments to drive innovation.
The most advanced managed services allow manufacturers to combine performance monitoring, proactive alerting and disaster resilience. And the result is reduced downtime, lower capital and operating costs and increased competitiveness.
The outsourcing of areas of IT operations should therefore be a consideration for all companies looking to place a stronger focus on their core objectives.
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