Many manufacturers use programmable logic controllers, or PLCs, to control and manage production equipment. These PLCs are traditionally not connected to the corporate IT network, or even the responsibility of the IT department. While it would make sense to open up industrial networks and make available data contained within production control systems, security issues must first be addressed.
Production plant equipment holds a vast array of information that most organizations find difficult to access and use because the industrial network is isolated from the IT network, and it is generally not connected to the internet either.
The reasons why industrial networks are isolated and are not part of the IT department stems from two main factors. Firstly, the skills needed to operate the PLCs are more engineering-based than IT-based, and production directors responsible for production line efficiencies prefer to take responsibility for all the aspects that can materially affect this primary objective. Secondly, security of these PLCs has been maintained by the isolationist approach.
In fact, many PLCs need engineer visits to simply re-configure or update firmware because they are based on older stable operating system technologies, and generally are not patched to maintain currency because the vendors have produced the PLC to perform dedicated tasks that do not change significantly over time. Many PLCs have a lifecycle of 15 to 20 years, and many manufacturing plants operate a heterogeneous environment, which may include many different types and age of plant control equipment.
Today, many organizations in manufacturing are attempting to understand the real cost of goods sold (COGS) so that senior managers can make decisions on packaging formats, product types, and product lines to ensure that the most profitable product is marketed and sold. For many products, the real COGS is linked to the time and energy consumed on the production line. Without the actual production information, most organizations simply attribute some form of average cost for utilities and time in production. This approach can lead to organizations marketing products in a format that is not the most optimum or profitable.
Another area that organizations can look to gain cost savings from is the merger of industrial networks and IT networks, so that skills are transferred, and economies of scale can be made. For example, if all the PLCs can be remotely managed, alleviating the need for engineer site visits for simple tasks, support costs from vendors will be reduced.
The problem that has stopped many organizations allowing remote access is concern over security, because many of the PLCs are produced for a dedicated purpose, such as to measure the flow rate in a conditioning vessel. In addition, vendors do not maintain currency with operating systems, because stability and reliability are the watch words in production plant control systems, thereby reducing any changes to the equipment to a minimum.
The opening up of industrial networks and availability of the vast amount of useful information contained within production control systems would be a natural next step. However, the concerns over security are obstacles that many organizations consider as the reason why this data cannot be made available to the wider IT network.
Innominate Secure Technologies, a German industrial network specialist, produces a range of products that can be built into many control systems, enabling them to be interconnected with IT networks or the internet. This technology is likely to gain significant traction as organizations recognize the value of exposing production-level data from their industrial networks, and PLC equipment, to a wider audience.
Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (www.butlergroup.com)