HomeConnectivityOT industry puts IT industry back in its ‘magic box’ in battle for IoT hearts and minds

OT industry puts IT industry back in its ‘magic box’ in battle for IoT hearts and minds

The operational technology (OT) industry moved to shore up its position as the arbiter of industrial change at PI World 2019 in Sweden today by declaring that new-fangled digital technologies like artificial intelligence cannot be so easily sold into the industrial set by opportunistic IT and IoT companies. 

Instead, these technologies must be filtered through the domain expertise gained at the ‘coal face’ of industry. The message was OT experts, rather than IT and IoT consultants, must drive digital change in their own businesses, and retain ultimate control of new digital technologies in industrial operations. 

Bry Dillon, vice president of cloud, channels and community at OSIsoft, the event host, said: “There is no magic box. You don’t just throw data up into one big place, and throw some out-rhythms on it, and hope it gives you insights for operations.”

Dillon was speaking to a captive audience. His company’s PI System has existed for decades, since before the idea of slamming together OT into IT to create IoT ‘innovation’ took hold. 

Sixty five per cent of Fortune 500 companies use its PI System, a database for bringing together operational and business data. OSIsoft has retained 90 per cent of it customers in the period since 1980. A presentation from Accenture at the event said 60 per cent of indsutrial IoT ‘platforms’ use the PI System as their source file system.

In a cavernous auditorium at Gothia Towers in Gothenburg, the largest hotel in the Nordic region (all but a “handful” of its 1,200 rooms are taken by the global OT industry, according to the reception desk), Dillon set out to make the industrial set know it is indispensable in the face of new digital pyrotechnics, bandied together as ‘industrial IoT’.

He ran through a series of anecdotes, like he was reassuring old friends in a bar. “I was sitting with a chemical company, and the gentleman across the table starts to chuckle,” he told the room, relaying a conversation from an ‘executive briefing’, where OSIsoft seeks to place its PI System in the context of both ‘mega-trends’ and enterprise strategies.

“I said to him, ‘What, why are you laughing?’ He said, ‘You know, it’s funny. We had a consultant come in here and tell us we have the brightest data scientists, we have the best. If you give us your data, we’re going to answer questions you didn’t even know to ask — problems you didn’t even know were there’. 

“So they brought him on. But three months later, they kicked him out again. And the guy across [the table] from me asked his operations team, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘We can’t take time teaching these guys engineering. They don’t know the difference between a pump and a heat exchanger’.”

The point is (‘the fourth’) industrial revolution cannot be acquired on-spec. It is not available off-the-shelf, or even repeatable between plants, let alone within organisations. It must go through co-development, or ‘co-creation’, with domain expertise at the centre of the negotiation. 

“You can’t just throw data into an environment with somebody who has no understanding of the problem or operations, and hope it is going to bring great value. You have to be able to leverage the expertise in operations. If you can get it working with new technology, and get insights back to the operations team so they trust them and act on them, then no question: you’ll get great value.”

But it is a juggling act, as OT staff run critical operations, which puts profits and lives at stake.

“People in operations vastly outnumber those in IT, and they vastly outnumber the partners you can bring in to work with. And they have day jobs. Of course, they want to do innovation. But they have to make sure things continue to run.”

Dillon relayed another conversation, this time with someone called ‘James’. He explained: “James runs a processing plant, a quintessential operational expert. He can tell you everything from the front-end to the back-end of the process. We were having a conversation about this new technology. I said, ‘What do you think about AI and all these new IoT technologies?’ 

“He said, ‘It sounds great — anything to help improve operations, safety, reliability. But it’s not what I think about every day. I think about the fragile componentry that underpins my operations’. He says, ‘My operations are fuelled by a power plant that was built in the 1960s. I feel like I’m on an island, and I can’t rely on anybody outside of my island if something goes wrong’.”

James’ concerns, it seems, reflect wider disquiet within industry at large. Dillon cited a 2019 global risk report from the World Economic Forum, which polled 1,000 decision-makers from the public sector, private sector, academia and civil society to assess the risks facing the world. 

Of the five top global risks, three are related to the environment and two to data security. Those in charge of critical operations and infrastructure hold the keys, he suggested. The owners of the data are best placed to make informed decisions to avert catastrophes, and other troubled incidents. 

Dillon suggested the example of rapid-fire responses to gas pipe explosions. He also talked, in detail, about the water crisis in the City of Salem, the capital of Oregon, last year, when toxic algae blooms in the city’s water-ways spiralled to unhealthy levels: the city issued an advisory to the elderly and pregnant that was seized on by the entire city. 

“Mass panic ensued for two months,” he said.

He explained: “By the end of the day, not a single store had any water left. Everything was sold out. The entire city of Salem actually shut down. They had to man watering stations. It didn’t matter if you were in finance or operations, everybody went to support the community.”

City officials are spending $75 million to avoid a rerun. Some will go to beef up defences against toxic algae, and bring early warnings through sensor systems. Some money will go to make the data from these sensors available to residents, as well. “Because you can imagine how many phone calls they got.”

Dillon added: “It is one small example of a small municipality in critical operations that requires an infrastructure that’s purpose-built from sensors all the way out to the community – one that can bring new sensing technology that can connect to legacy systems that has the ability to share data outside.”

It is a classic case of critical IoT, driven by those in charge of the data. As a parallel, Nokia and Telia have just announced 5G-connected drones with computer vision technology to track blue-green algae in the Baltic Sea. The solution may be expanded by the Finnish Environment Institute SYKE for additional environmental monitoring, such as tracking plastic waste or locating oil leaks, they said.

Speaking to a room full of OT professionals, Dillion went to the heart of it. “These people aren’t just any people. They are operating the foundation of our entire economy. It’s these people, when empowered with the right operational data, that have the ability to not only transform their world, but to transform our greater world,” he said.

It was like a balm, for a workforce that might well feel marginalised amid the IT-led hype around digital change and industrial revolution.

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