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Breaking Down Walls

Until fairly recently, you wouldn't have expected to find individuals from Boeing's IT organization and its various automation engineering groups working closely together to pilot new technologies on the plant floor.

 

"In the past, manufacturing did its own thing, and IT did its own thing," says Richard Paine, an advanced computing technologist at the $61 billion aerospace and defense giant. "There wasn't open hostility between the organizations, but they tended to go their own ways."

 

Chinks in the virtual wall separating IT and manufacturing at Boeing began to appear a couple of years ago, however, when the Commercial Airplane group stated its strategic intention to deploy secure wireless networking as a way to bring flexibility to the plant floor. Paine, who had been working on wireless and radio frequency technologies as part of Boeing's Phantom Works research and development (R&D) organization, took the Commercial Airplane group's statement as a green light. He helped put together a Secure Mobile Architecture Team made up of representatives from Phantom Works, IT, and manufacturing. And the team began to explore, among other things, how Boeing could use existing 802.11 (WiFi) wireless local area networks, which IT had deployed to support general computing applications, for secure mobile communications on the plant floor.

 

The group is creating an architecture — dubbed ScadaNet — in which every packet moving over the wireless network is cryptographically identified, and devices connecting to the network are authenticated via SIM chips. Now, programs such as those for Boeing's 777 airliner are beginning to use the technology to enable wireless robots and machines to move large airliner subassemblies, dramatically increasing manufacturing speed and flexibility.

 

"There's always been a bit of competition between manufacturing and IT, and that was perpetuated because everything wasn't network-connected. Or they weren't using common networks," Paine says. "Now there's much more collaboration and communication between the two sides, and technologies like wireless are forcing that."

Boeing certainly isn't the only manufacturing company where an unofficial yet sturdy wall has separated IT and plant floor automation teams. Overseeing parallel but separate technology infrastructures, IT and automation teams at many companies have long maintained an arm's-length working relationship, one sometimes tinged with mistrust. Many in IT, experts say, believe automation groups lack the disciplined process orientation and enterprise-wide perspective needed to deploy scalable, secure information systems. And many who manage manufacturing technology think IT lacks an understanding of the intense, real-time responsiveness and reliability required of systems supporting critical manufacturing processes.

 

"Historically there's been a very rigorous, specific separation of the control architecture and the enterprise architecture at most companies," says Harris Kagan, director of wireless programs at Invensys. "And that situation has led to a separation of church and state, with firewalls and demilitarized zones dividing IT and automation people and processes."

 

At companies like Boeing, however, that is beginning to change. And, in many cases, the migration of standards-based technologies from the IT world onto the plant floor is a catalyst for that change. Specifically, the arrival of wireless networks in the manufacturing environment is forcing IT and automation teams to break down the walls that separate them and to find ways to collaborate. "Over the years, IT and manufacturing have spent a lot of time spitting at one another. But now we have wireless, and the radio waves go where they want," Kagan says. "And it has to be managed."

Different Story

 

Wireless networking certainly isn't the first technology from the IT world to migrate to the plant floor. Over the past few years, a steady parade of lower-cost standard and de facto standard technologies — from PCs and the Windows operating system to Ethernet and IP-based networks — have made their way from the IT world to the plant floor. But, though automation groups found it fairly easy to assimilate standards-based technologies while maintaining the separation from IT networks and processes, wireless is a different story, experts say.

 

For one thing, those deploying and running the technology need to worry about multiple wireless networks interfering with one another. And, obviously, they need to be concerned with the security and reliability of data as it moves wirelessly around the office or plant environments.

 

Many organizations long ago resolved these issues in the front and back offices by putting IT and telecommunications groups in charge of specifying and enforcing wireless standards and overseeing wireless network deployment policies. Boeing, for example, created a Wireless Applications Group (WAG) that developed a standard wireless reference architecture for the company, as well as an Unlicensed Radio Operations Committee (UROC) that approves all proposed wireless network deployments, Paine says.

 

"At most companies, IT has been cast in the role of approvers of wireless deployments," says Ian McPherson, network architect at Apprion Inc., a provider of wireless networking management tools. "They've already deployed the technology in most office environments, and they are familiar with issues such as security and intrusion."

 

It's only natural, then, that, as manufacturing organizations begin to pilot wireless networks for process monitoring and even control, IT organizations often expect to take an oversight role. In some companies, such as Boeing, that's leading to new types of collaboration between IT and automation groups. At others, it's generating friction and even delaying wireless automation deployments.

 

That has been the case at pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly & Co. Automation teams at the company's Indianapolis R&D plant have been pushing to launch pilot projects to monitor instruments and production equipment, and to track the movement of raw materials through the plant. But the company's IT and telecommunications groups, which have overseen back-office wireless network deployments, have called for a timeout when it comes to wireless in the plant.

 

"Their biggest concern is with our wireless networks interfering with their bandwidth," says James Murphy, an automation engineer at the company. Also, he says, IT and telecom want pilot projects to wait for wireless products that comply with the ISA's SP100 wireless automation standard, now in development.

 

"They want to wait for the perfect, standard solution, but we're anxious to jump in. There have been several delays already," Murphy says.

 

This is not to say that all wireless plant floor projects are being delayed by disconnects between IT and automation teams. Many automation groups have managed to keep initial wireless projects under IT's radar by making sure they are relatively modest, easy to manage, and focused on equipment sensing and monitoring rather than control, says Peter Zornio, chief strategic officer at Emerson Process Management. Emerson has assisted this, he says, by making sure its Smart Wireless family of products can be easily deployed and managed by automation engineers familiar with the company's wired networking products.

 

"Sometimes the IT guys ask questions, but they are quickly satisfied that the deployments are simple enough that the automation folks won't need help from IT," Zornio says.

As plant floor wireless deployments grow and add complexity, however, Zornio fully expects that to change. Because most organizations won't be willing to incur the expense of deploying and managing multiple wireless networks, "eventually the question is going to come up, 'Who owns and controls the wireless network?' There's not an obvious answer," he says. "And, as somebody who wants to see wireless take off, this is one of the things that may slow it down."

 

While today it's unclear at many companies whether IT or automation teams have ultimate authority over wireless projects, in the long run, experts say, IT will control and manage the technology on the plant floor as well as in the back office. That's because IT has the experience when it comes to planning, deploying, and managing wireless networks. "Right now, the control guys are driving it. They have the responsibility for improving the numbers, and they're paying the bills," Invensys' Kagan says. "But, ultimately, the IT guys will win."

 

 

Dos and Don'ts

 

But, if organizations such as Boeing are any indication, wireless doesn't have to become a victim of the long-standing disconnect between IT and automation teams. Instead, it can become a catalyst for better collaboration between the two groups.

 

"The good news is that if you really take the time to do wireless right, you have to involve everyone, and that can't help but lead to a better understanding between IT and manufacturing," Kagan says.

 

The first step, Kagan and other experts say, is to make sure the IT organization is in the loop on pilot plant floor wireless projects from the get-go. Often, automation teams attempt to keep initial wireless pilots secret from IT, only to run into resistance and delays when, ultimately, IT gets wind of the project.

 

"We see guys deciding they won't tell the IT guys about the project. Then it later comes back to bite them," Kagan says.

 

Instead, automation teams seeking to try out wireless should not only get IT involved early on specific projects, but also work with IT to develop a reference architecture that can be used to guide decisions on a wide range of potential wireless priorities and investments.

 

"As organizations migrate from technologies such as WiFi, to WiMax, to wireless sensor networks, they need a game plan for how to manage all of those technologies, what standards to follow, and who will do what," says Greg Burns, wireless program lead for the enterprise and networks security practice at Invensys. "The more of this you can decide in advance, in a collaborative way, the better."

 

That's the role that Boeing's WAG plays. The group, made up of IT, line-of-business, and R&D representatives, has developed a plan indicating what types of wireless technologies fit where, and how they will interoperate.

 

"Before we had the WAG and the reference architecture, people were just going out, grabbing wireless technologies, and bringing them into the factory," Paine says. "That's not really what we wanted because, too often, things couldn't easily interoperate and coexist."

 

In addition to collaboratively planning for the long term, IT and automation teams should work together to identify which specific wireless projects merit investment. While, in most cases, plant managers and automation teams will drive the decision on whether to use wireless for asset tracking, workforce mobility, or other applications, IT must provide input on issues such as how a wireless deployment should be secured and how much it will cost to maintain, Apprion's McPherson says.

 

Ultimately, experts say, the proliferation of technologies such as wireless will break down traditional walls between IT and automation teams, forcing them to work collaboratively. At Boeing, Paine says, after some initial uncertainty, automation teams seem to be accepting the fact that no longer will they be able to operate in a bubble, without much oversight from IT.

 

"They're OK with it," Paine says. "They recognize that they don't have as much experience with wireless technologies, such as radios, so it makes sense to take advantage of the expertise from the IT side."

Source: Editorial from the November 2007 issue of Managing Automation, Breaking Down Walls, by Jeff Moad, MA Editorial Staff

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