Editor's Choice


What to do when fragmented systems get too complex

November 2021 Editor's Choice

In 1818, Mary Shelley, a well-known English author, wrote the famous fictional novel – Frankenstein. She tells the story of several unorthodox laboratory experiments that created a hideous living monster from a range of parts. The resulting creature, a mix of incompatible bits and pieces, was shunned by society and ended up wandering alone in the wilderness.

You might be wondering what the relevance of this centuries old story is to modern IT in manufacturing? There are, in fact, several similarities. As manufacturing organisations undergo digital transformation, several new technologies are introduced, often in a piecemeal and seemingly random fashion. These tactical projects might introduce new mobile devices, IoT devices and cloud-based services. As part of the implementation project, specific point integrations to supervisory control systems are often included in the scope. The result over time creates a complex Frankenstein-like monster comprising of several disparate and poorly integrated technologies that work after a fashion but are poorly matched. Many of these point solutions are sometimes constrained to a departmental silo and barely meet the criteria for an integrated next-generation responsive IT system necessary for real digital transformation.

Reasons to upgrade

These disparate systems will eventually become unmanageable and kicking the can down the road is a rational response when there are other short term business priorities. But eventually the problem will need to be addressed. Re-implementing some of the smaller applications using an existing common platform might be viable and help to reduce some complexity. It will, however, eventually become necessary to consider a total network upgrade. All of this must be done while still running the plant and maintaining the integrity of the existing automation systems.

There might be other pressing reasons to upgrade:

Cybersecurity threats: many of the early scada systems running in factories were designed before the Internet became pervasive. Best practice 20 years ago involved a gateway that separated the ‘plant’ and ‘business’ systems. This approach is no longer practical, as common standards and converging technologies demand an unrestricted data flow between plant and business. Cybersecurity has therefore become a real risk in the plant.

Technical obsolescence: over time, even the best technologies will become obsolete. Computer hardware spares will become more difficult to source. Software operating systems fall out of maintenance and will no longer be supported. Skills that are able and willing to work on old systems will be harder to find as experienced in-house experts retire.

Changes in the business: as equipment vendors start to offer a more complete service, including remote condition monitoring of their equipment, an upgrade of the network infrastructure will be necessary. These piecemeal infrastructure upgrades might be more cost-effectively done and involve less rework if undertaken as part of a wide-ranging upgrade that also includes the supervisory control hardware.

Considerations when upgrading

Clearly, a major scada and network upgrade will be a complex undertaking. Many decisions will be necessary at the outset of such a project. Factors to consider might include:

Phased approach: upgrading segments of the network and systems one at a time to limit disruption. This might also involve running old and new in parallel for some time.

Connectivity: re-optimising the best combinations of industrial wi-fi, Ethernet, fibre, RF-mesh, LTE/5G cellular, satellite and VLF networks.

Protocols: retiring old proprietary networks and standardising on a modern open standard that avoids proprietary lock-in and that is also robust, secure and future-proof.

Reconfiguring gateways and firewalls: reconfiguring the network segments to separate critical traffic and guarantee performance using modern robust and upgradeable firewalls that can protect the system from cybersecurity threats.

VPN connectivity: ensuring that all network traffic routed over public networks is protected against the risk of interception and possible denial of service attacks.

Edge computing devices: ensuring that plant data is consolidated, stored and processed at the edge before forwarding to an external system. Well-configured edge computing devices can help maintain reliability when connectivity is not guaranteed and can also reduce bandwidth across the factory boundary.

Orchestration: implementing a middleware architecture that can synchronise and coordinate information flows between distributed systems, deliver messages, validate data and act as a broker between software services.

Scada: new or upgraded supervisory control and data acquisition systems that are architected for modern heterogeneous environments and remote access.

IIoT device management: device registry, provisioning, upgrading, deployment across the entire plant or even the business.

Data storage, management, analytics and machine learning applications: cloud or on-premises data storage, with retrieval and analysis of large amounts of structured and unstructured data from the underlying plant and business systems.

Historical data: archived or migrated as required.

Selecting the right partner

As mentioned, a plant network upgrade can be a complex project. Not all vendors are equal and it is important to research the different service provider offerings in detail before finalising their scope of services. Individual vendors will normally specialise in either hardware, connectivity, system integration, or platform and software applications. Few can do them all as they require scarce, specialised skills – many work with partners.

If the vendor disappears or loses key skills, you might need to pick up the pieces. A proprietary system might have several benefits and be optimised, but an open system might be more flexible and present a lower risk of vendor lock-in.

Impact on the organisation and workers

Finally, a significant upgrade to the scada infrastructure might also involve some organisational changes. The convergence of IT and OT is a new opportunity for manufacturing companies to work more effectively. The Covid-19 pandemic has also led to an increase in remote work. Powerful consumer mobile devices allow workers to remain connected, both at remote locations and when working in certain areas in the factory. Connected worker technologies and wearable devices can also introduce additional benefits by improving worker health and safety. The way people work in the plant will change permanently.

Concluding remarks

Eventually, all the Frankenstein-like systems born in the early days of Industry 4.0 will need to be reworked, retired, simplified, or streamlined. At some point, a major system upgrade will be required. To upgrade a scada system and the underlying plant network is not a simple project. Those of us in IT who have experienced a major ERP business system upgrade understand the complexity of such an undertaking. The good news is that with proper planning, a strategic approach, careful vendor selection and a systematic project methodology, you can successfully upgrade to a future-proof ICT infrastructure that supports digital transformation.


About Gavin Halse


Gavin Halse.

Gavin Halse is a chemical process engineer who has been involved in the manufacturing sector since mid-1980. He founded a software business in 1999 which grew to develop specialised applications for mining, energy and process manufacturing in several countries. Gavin is most interested in the effective use of IT in industrial environments and now consults part time to manufacturing and software companies around the effective use of IT to achieve business results.

For more information contact Gavin Halse, Absolute Perspectives, +27 83 274 7180, gavin@gavinhalse.com, www.absoluteperspectives.com


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