As technology comes for more and more of the corporation, from conference rooms to manufacturing plants, there’s a culture clash brewing between the IT department and the folks responsible for operations. Because while those operations might be focused on maintaining the safety and comfort of those conference rooms or managing the safety in that manufacturing plant, when everything gets a computer and a potential connection to the internet, it all becomes part of IT.
That is why companies — especially companies in the industrial world — are creating new jobs at the top to handle the merger of information and operational tech. We saw the creation of a chief digital officer a few years back as businesses tried to manage the digitization of their own products and services. The new role is a step below the CDO and often has a far more practical task list. The person who takes on this role — titles include chief of automation and IT/OT architect — works closely with both the information technology (IT) team and the operational technology (OT) teams to accomplish business goals.
For years, we’ve talked about the IT/OT divide and what the IT world can learn from the OT world and vice-versa, and the emergence of these roles is one of the solutions companies have created to bridge such divides. In an off-the-record panel at an Emerson Exchange event held this week in Nashville, Tenn., several people who held these newly created roles discussed why their job was created and why it mattered.
For example, at another panel at the event, Amy Odom, an asset manager at BASF, provided a case study on her chemical plant’s experience deploying wireless vibration sensors for tracking problems in equipment before the equipment breaks down. She said that BASF, plagued with aging equipment and rising demand for the chemicals made in the plant for the creation of memory foam, saw a return on its initial investment within the first six months.
During that period, the system had flagged two potential failures that enabled the reliability team to bring in a maintenance crew and schedule repairs in advance. Doing so prevented downtime, saved money by eliminating the need to pay workers overtime, and avoided causing additional wear and tear to other sections of the equipment.
The system is comprised of 104 sensors and 58 gateways around the plant. The sensors use Emerson’s Wireless HART protocol, sending it to a gateway that in turn sends data over the plant’s Wi-Fi network. But 11 months ago, the BASF corporate IT team decided to replace the Wi-Fi gear in that plant because the access point vendor was bankrupt. They took down the network and made plans to replace it.
But they didn’t replace it. Odom said the plant has now been without Wi-Fi, and thus this particular system, ever since the IT team took it down 11 months ago. Recently, the plant experienced an equipment failure that cost “something in the six figures,” which would have been detected by the vibration sensors had they been operational. Odom said that her notes to the IT department had not had any effect, but she hoped that the equipment failure — a clear example of how the lack of Wi-Fi was costing BASF money — might inspire a bit of urgency.
That is a particularly egregious example of a corporate IT department not communicating with an operational tech team. But while I was stunned by the idea that a section of a plant might be without Wi-Fi for 11 months, most of the other attendees didn’t seem surprised. As to how anything got done at all, there were other Wi-Fi networks in the plant — just not ones this particular system could use.
The new IT/OT jobs are designed to solve problems like this quickly, or better yet, to make sure they don’t happen in the first place. They are also set up to ensure that IT and OT groups come together to create policies around security, patching, and purchases that make sense for both sides of the house. As someone who spends time thinking about the new types of jobs created by the internet of things, I was glad to discover this one.