Manufacturers seek balance between risk and reward when connecting their networks

Prior to March 2020, most manufacturers had a clearer separation between IT functions and the operational technology that controlled their company’s most critical industrial processes.

As the pandemic progressed, companies were forced to reduce the “air gap” that divided the way their computer systems and industrial machines connected to each other. For better or worse, this migration provided insight into daily plant operations for executives working from home, said Nick Barendt, executive director of the Institute for Intelligent, Secure and Connected Systems (ISSACS) at Case Western University. Reserve.

“There has always been some IT and OT connection to tracking product, work processes and inventory,” Barendt said. “If those connection points weren’t done carefully, they could open up different security risks. The coronavirus accelerated the closing of the air gap.”

Considering that industrial settings require different protections compared to corporate environments, manufacturers must determine how their machines can communicate with each other safely and efficiently.

While there is no perfect answer to network security and functionality, companies that educate themselves about the risk and the broader online ecosystem will be better positioned to succeed, industry experts interviewed by Crain’s said.

Barendt, who also runs the Smart Manufacturing Innovation Center (SMIC) at Case Western Reserve, works with manufacturers of all sizes. Floor layouts can vary dramatically, though Barendt has seen his share of it from cooperative robots and ERP systems in recent years.

The machines on the floor were built to last for decades, years before cybersecurity and the Internet of Things (IoT) became headline-grabbing terms. Therefore, legacy computers are more vulnerable to hackers, who can not only steal data, but also gain control of machines to cause all kinds of damage.

In today’s Industry 4.0 era, most equipment will require some level of connectivity. Innately incompatible systems can be linked by edge devices, ensuring data flow and interconnectivity between networks. In a typically sprawling manufacturing facility, these devices provide detailed, real-time information about a company’s machines and IoT devices. Industrial assets can be tracked remotely, allowing staff to quickly adjust production schedules.

“You need something at the edge of the network that does data acquisition, aggregation and analysis before transmission to a remote cloud or server,” Barendt said. “It could be applied to a larger data center for a larger company.”

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