In the world of manufacturing Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), flooring is a great visual metaphor for two, often-conflicting, sides of the business. The carpet tiles of the office – governed by IT, versus the epoxy resin floor of the factory – governed by operational technology (OT). Business needs, procurement cycles, downtime allowances; everything is different. And here lies the first, and often biggest, challenge in the journey towards the ‘digital factory’: harmonising two separate worlds.

Like the interchangeable carpet tiles, the IT equipment in the office is refreshed during relatively short investment cycles. But with costs running into the tens of millions, the plant, machinery and assets of the industrial side, like the long-wearing resin floor beneath, are expected to perform for decades.

With such colossal differences, it’s often difficult to get IT and OT to work together and consider each other’s business needs. But if the two can unify, there are real savings and improvements to be had, in terms of efficiencies, data and business insight, cost reductions and productivity.

What is a ‘digital factory’?

Industry 4.0. It’s the latest buzzword in IT and manufacturing and is generating lots of noise. But away from the chatter most manufacturers are actually focussed on business as usual. Aside from the difficulty in breaking down the barriers between the office and factory, the term ‘digital factory’ itself has been a source of confusion.

When you delve further into what is required to deliver a digital factory, it quickly gets complicated. A manufacturer would have to build capability in a number of different areas to get to the point of maturity needed to achieve ‘digital factory’ status. They’d need to be generating data about what’s happening on the factory floor, driven by centres or actuators; things that are either generating data or that you can pass messages through to act based on your data.

Then comes the need for networking and connectivity - both within the plant environment and industrial areas as well as within the IT areas. Next, you’d need data and analytics platforms, enabling you to bring that data together and then run analytics, which would then move into areas like machine learning and AI. And then the most valuable element: how you build out the business process, creating workflows to start automating these processes.

While there is some value in having a dashboard that shows if a machine is working as effectively as it should, the real value is to be able to start tuning that machine in real time using your data.

A true digital factory is made up of many layers. At the centre are devices, connectivity, data and analytics, and automation. And, as you can imagine, that’s quite a complicated mix for manufacturers that might be early-on in their digital transformation journey and may not have the platforms in place or the in-house skills to manage them.

While IT equipment is refreshed every few years, the opportunity to update and upgrade plant equipment, machines and assets is hampered by eye-watering capex costs and downtime – a very real challenge. Machinery and equipment will run constantly for months and even years, so maintenance periods are few and the ability to install new technology is limited. Digitising and automating this environment is a long journey, and many OT teams simply don’t know where to start.

For those just setting off, it’s common to see small pilot projects. Perhaps a few sensors to condition and monitor the health of machinery, or to generate data for understanding machine efficiency. We’re talking small-scale, relatively inexpensive pilots to test and learn. But that’s still a long way from manufacturers investing millions to refresh entire operating environments, fully-integrated with IT, and used to make tangible operations savings.

So how can we get closer?

The first step is getting the two sides talking and working together. What’s needed is a unifying, cross-departmental manager who can engage the OT and IT sides of the business to develop a strategy whilst taking ownership of the delivery. Mythical though it may sound, little by little, the role of Head of Digital or Head of 4.0 is actually starting to appear in a handful of manufacturing firms.

The Head of Digital will be the architect of change; their role absolutely critical to the success of digitising the factory. Just having that view across the business; having the responsibility to integrate IT and OT without a bias in either direction, could help elevate projects above the common roadblocks, and see successful pilot projects move through to production.

Unifying people, culture and entrenched processes are key challenges that this role will have to manage. Change brings the greatest resistance, so, along with technical knowhow, the Head of Digital will need impeccable people skills to break down the silos between the office and the factory.

For manufacturers just starting out on the journey to design a digital factory, the destination must feel like the summit of mount Everest, viewed from the foot. It’s a long, steep climb and not to be embarked upon lightly. My money would be on the Head of Digital to cut the best path to the top without leaving anyone behind.