Software-Defined Automation Drives Operational Resiliency

Learn why software-defined automation at the edge is the next evolution across operational industries.
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Previous industrial revolutions were focused on leveraging technology-driven automation for the purpose of efficiency and scale. Now, companies are looking for ways to maintain the efficiency and scale they require will becoming more flexible and market driven amidst uncertain market conditions presented by Coronavirus.

The current crisis highlights this need for greater flexibility and resiliency in industrial operations so they can more quickly switch gears to help address coronavirus shortages. IDC reinforces the need for manufacturing resiliency in the age of COVID-19 in several recent publications. Beyond manufacturing, COVID-19 is causing utilities to react to unexpected and dramatic fluctuations in demand. Oil and gas providers must adjust upstream and downstream efforts to match the sudden impact of the pandemic. In addition, to making reluctant decisions across global suppliers, and virtually all operations-heavy industries must cope with a sudden disruption to their workforce.

Taking a step back beyond this current crisis, the need for resiliency has already been a focus in recent years. Enterprises continue to reap the benefits of moving their enterprise core infrastructure to the cloud. The centralized and uniform management capabilities that the cloud offers are yielding business resiliency and agility for back office functions.

NetworkWorld captured this benefit of resiliency in the age of cloud services nicely while explaining the dilemma it creates – the need to manage application workloads across multiple cloud providers. But for the physical operation, the need to centralize data and establish uniform management of business assets is a need that exists the edge, and the workload is conducted by heterogeneous assets and operational applications. Orchestration of these physical happenings must become agile and responsive through the continued use of technology.

Today’s edge technologies can help with this but there are hurdles to clear regarding interoperability, legacy OT, and support for a consistent approach across providers and users. If we look to the software world for clues, virtualization is a key lever that can solve some of these challenges. But to be effective, there must be a concerted effort to tool the technologies into easier to adopt solutions and standards, and that effort is just beginning.

The resulting solutions will leverage containerization at the edge including on assets and devices themselves. Those edge applications will be developed by technical experts and solution providers but will be managed through low or no-code graphical interfaces to empower subject matter experts within the operation to reconfigure or orchestrate the operation with minimal technical assistance. This new software-defined automation (SDA) will be instrumental to unlocking the resiliency demanded in the future of operations. Here are three ways it does so:

  • Unified Data – as important as the process orchestration of physical assets and processes have become, data now requires strategic orchestration. By virtualizing capabilities like data ingestion and translation at the edge, data flowing across the network will be relevant and homogenized. By processing it closer to the point of creation, faster and more agile decision making can be made where it is needed. Salient data will also be sent to the cloud intelligently to reduce cloud storage and transaction costs and to ensure operational stability and security.
  • Flexibility – process flexibility is constrained by changeover processes that are largely manual. They lack the responsiveness and predictability necessary to make them truly agile. With SDA, a unified interface to the operation will extend to the control level, yielding centralized re-engineering that can be pushed out uniformly across the operation.
  • Skills Migration – the skills gap today is limiting productivity and it’s only getting worse. Subject matter expertise needs to be migrated and adapted to modern skills and job competencies of the future. Ladder logic, used today to orchestrate industrial control systems, will give way to graphical user interfaces that more closely align digital requirements and processing with physical requirements and control. These roles will be more broadly adopted in the future as discussed by Kevin Prouty, GVP of Manufacturing and Energy Insights at IDC in his recent web conference about the Future of Operations and the New Manufacturing Organization.

For those who are familiar with a traditional operational architecture, this can sound futuristic to the point of dismissal, however there are a host of trends suggesting this is the next logical evolution across operational industries. Learn more about those driving trends in our recent report Software-defined Automation: Ladder Logic for the 21st Century.

Please join IDC Manufacturing Insights for the “IT/OT Impact on Industrial Automation” webinar on Tuesday, April 28th from 11:00am -12:00 pm ET to learn more about these drivers and how software-defined automation at the edge addresses them.

Research Manager, IT/OT Convergence