Embracing Automation in Tough Times

What do a car-parts maker in Germany, a chemical plant in Singapore, a mine in Latin America, and the American health-care industry have in common?  Due to the global pandemic, all of them are automating their systems more than ever before.

A recent article in The Economist, Bearing fruit: After years of dithering companies are embracing automation, recounts how the pandemic has pushed many companies to take the plunge and automate their plants, warehouses, and internal systems.  Sales of robots have doubled for some popular models, and remote connectivity has gone from luxury to necessity.

“Bosses have boasted of automating their operations for years without an awful lot to show for it,” the article says. “Covid-19 has spurred them to put their money where their mouths are.”

Automation goals are changing

The fact that this is a pandemic-driven response is illustrated in a Bain Automation Survey of 500 companies, showing that goals for automation have changed dramatically.  Before the pandemic, the leading reasons for automating were to lower costs, increase performance, and grow revenue.  Since the pandemic, improving business resilience, lowering risk, and generating business insights are at the top of the list.

Projected adoption rates have doubled for sensors, Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity, and Artificial Intelligence (AI), according to another survey of 1001 supply-chain professionals.  A third survey quoted in the Economist article shows that a full 80% of companies surveyed had accelerated their adoption of digital employee interaction and collaboration.

Beyond automation, and expected to be even a bigger wave, is the resulting data, and how it gets used. The article says, “The pandemic’s bigger long-term impact may be a fuller embrace by firms of data their operations generate, and predictive algorithms to help guide real-time decisions.”   Major automation companies like ABB, Emerson, and Rockwell are racing against smaller start-ups and consultants to turn the real-time and archived data from their systems into actionable intelligence.  The resulting efficiencies have led to a prediction from Allied Market Research that process-automation product sales will rise from $1.6 billion two years ago to just under $20 billion by 2027.

Connecting the data

All this data must be connected.  Data from the sensors, devices, and automation systems on the plant floor has to be connected securely, in real time, to the managers, analysts and decision-making executives in corporate HQs.  Factories spread across the globe need to share data seamlessly and securely.  Workers staying at home require remote access to processes in the field.  For all of this to work, robust data communication is crucial.

This explains why, despite the pandemic and economic slowdowns in major world economies, our customers have been hard at work building and expanding their systems.  Management in these companies are embracing automation, as a hedge against uncertainty and an investment in data-driven solutions.  Our job is to ensure that they get the data they need, easily, rapidly, and securely.

Security During a Pandemic

Back in March of this year, Newsweek Vantage published a special report on industrial cybersecurity titled Weathering the Perfect Storm.  No sooner had it been released than we were broadsided by the COVID-19 crisis.  In response, Newsweek editor Nigel Holloway sat down to discuss this new challenge with the two main contributors to the article: Eric Cosman, President of the International Society of Automation (ISA), and Steve Mustard, an ISA executive board member.

Their insights on industrial cybersecurity during the pandemic were recorded, and are available on the ISA website.  Here are some of the highlights:

Both Cosman and Mustard agree that you need to prepare for the unexpected, even though it is difficult to imagine what that might be.  Having so many more people working remotely during this pandemic is probably leading to more cyber vulnerabilities.  Adversaries are going to try to exploit these weaknesses, and the quick, easy solution is not always the most secure.  In any case, now is the time to act.

Security – robust yet invisible

Increasing security can add friction, and people often look for creative ways to get around it.  “Convenience is at the other end of the scale to security,” said Mustard.  Cosman suggests: “We need to find ways to make security robust, yet almost invisible….The theme that goes through all of this is to integrate security into your work processes in such a way that is not seen as something that’s added on.”

IT and OT working together?

Another challenge is the difference between IT and OT (Operations Technology) cultures.  Both are running mission critical systems, but while IT thrives on change, OT shuns it. You can’t be updating an industrial system every few hours or playing what-if scenarios on a running production line.  What Mustard and Cosman suggest is to form a team of experts from both IT and OT, the “right people with the right skills and the right experience, who have the right understanding, irrespective of what organization they may come from.”

The right tools

To this we would add: Give these people the right tools.  At the heart of the security issue is providing secure access to OT system data.  Much of the exposure for remote access comes from using IT technologies like VPNs in  environments and scenarios they were not created for.  Other risks stem from using industrial protocols not designed for open networks like the Internet.

That’s why we offer data communication tools that are secure by design.  Industrial users should not have to compromise—either on security or convenience.  For our large and growing customer base, frictionless, secure access to their industrial data provided by the DataHub is a normal daily experience.  Their plants and production lines are linked in real time, they monitor their systems securely from remote locations, and they can send control commands as needed.  When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, they simply kept on working, keeping their staff safe and their mission-critical processes secure.