Leveraging the Internet of Things to Bridge the Gap Between Information and Operational Technology


Industrial environments can be very dated. It’s not surprising to find network switches in a factory or a manufacturing plant dating back to the 1990s. There are two reasons for this. The first is that—up until recently—manufacturing processes weren’t very smart, and communications flowed one way.

A typical industrial data center would issue commands to industrial machines, but monitoring, if any, wouldn't extend outside the production environment. The only time the switches on a factory floor would dial home was when devices stopped communicating.

The second reason has to do with costs. Traditional industrial networks are monetized over decades—not months or years. Heavy machinery is built to last, is continuously maintained, and is often refurbished or rebuilt at regular intervals. While this approach works well for heavy equipment, it’s not as useful for managing the IT infrastructure that is used to control them.

A Few Minutes of Downtime Can Cause Heavy Losses

In manufacturing and production environments, even a few minutes of downtime can add up to millions of dollars in losses. In some processes, unanticipated downtime can cause a failed batch, requiring the process to start over from the beginning. For these reasons, companies need to start thinking of putting the same care into their industrial networks as they do to their corporate networks.

Downtime can have big losses. Give your industrial networks the same care as your corporate one.

At the same time, industrial automation and the Internet of Things are transforming today’s plants and factories. Intelligent networks and sensors are generating vast quantities of data that are helping to improve manufacturing efficiency, capacity, safety, and profitability. Companies need to adopt strategies and technologies that leverage all this new information. 

A Quarter Century of Building Industrial IT Solutions

For nearly 25 years, Cybertrol Engineering has provided industrial IT, enterprise-wide information solutions, and automation tools to a range of manufacturing clients, including Tesla, Bosch, and 3M. However, the bulk of our clients are in the food and beverage and biomedical industries.

Our Industrial IT division specializes in turnkey data center and networking solutions. We specify, supply, and configure all system hardware and software so our clients can focus on running their production facilities instead of managing their networks.

We design our systems up to the highest level of availability and redundancy, and we employ best practices and the latest technology to ensure uptime and scalability.

This approach isn’t always an easy sell. The technological needs of industrial settings often takes a backseat to corporate IT because it isn’t seen as a profit center. But that perception is changing as manufacturers begin to embrace the Industrial Internet of Things.

The High Cost of Low-Cost Infrastructure

One of the biggest problems with this low-cost industrial IT strategy is the poor performance of inexpensive unmanaged switches that lack IP addresses and smart functions. They are virtually invisible and can’t be monitored or configured with standard network management tools.

When these switches fail, it’s difficult to determine the cause or pinpoint the device at fault. You have to do a lot of digging to figure out whether a cable came loose, a power supply fizzled out, a firmware update became corrupted, or somebody plugged an unauthorized laptop into an ethernet port.

All of these issues cause downtime that can eat into profits. To combat unexpected outages, some companies schedule downtime, sometimes as much as eight hours a month. You can only imagine how much lost money this can represent at a plant that runs 24/7 all year round.

Avoid the high cost of low-cost infrastructure.

To further complicate matters, the faulty switch can’t be configured or reset without being taken offline after the problem is found. These switches are also hard to secure because ports are so cumbersome to manage that they are often all left open, providing easy vectors for cyberattacks and other security breaches.

Ultimately, the initial lower cost is eaten up by the expense of downtime and the extra effort needed to resolve any problems that may arise. 

Taking the High Road with Cisco

As an IT professional, I would never recommend this low-cost way of building an industrial network. I spend a lot of my time at Cybertrol ripping out unintelligent legacy hardware and replacing it with Cisco products.

Part of this has to do with my personal history with Cisco. Throughout my career in the private and public sector, as well as in education, I have found myself coming back to their products whenever I needed infrastructure that performed as advertised.

There’s also the matter of brand recognition. When we talk to our customers about potential infrastructure partners, they are well aware of the many benefits of Cisco technology. The systems we manage are aligned with the Cisco Connected Factory portfolio, which is made up of validated, proven solutions for automation, wireless, and security. Architectures are designed around the recognized and collaboratively developed Converged Plantwide Ethernet (CPwE).

Another element is at play here. In the past, many companies segregated their corporate and their industrial data centers. You’d have a closet full of servers in the plant offices and another one on the floor. These days, thanks to virtualization and hyperconverged infrastructure, you can set up a single data center and still keep everything separate.

Additionally, intelligent factories are generating massive amounts of data about production yields, raw materials, energy use, labor efficiency, and other elements of the manufacturing process. Instead of waiting weeks or months for production and sales reports, or using spreadsheets and past data to forecast future demand, companies can now use real-time data to plan industrial operations. 

Blurring the Line Between Corporate and Industrial IT

The line between the factory floor and the front office is becoming increasingly blurred. Cisco is uniquely positioned to assist us in building solutions that combine the industrial and corporate sides of IT. The company is best known for servers and switches that work in traditional corporate data centers. But Cisco also makes weather-sealed and waterproof hardware that can be used underwater, outdoors, in extreme cold and heat, and on factory floors that are hosed down every couple of hours or where harsh chemicals are being used.

When you combine these industry-grade products with IoT sensors and advanced wireless networking solutions, and the security products that are necessary when corporate and industrial applications start to merge, the clear choice is Cisco.

I want to share a couple of cases where Cybertrol worked with Cisco to create a hybrid environment that combined corporate and industrial infrastructure, as well as the Internet of Things. 

Converged Corporate and Industrial IT Networks

In the first instance, a customer was constructing a new milling operation that used a vast array of motors, which were managed by motor control centers (MCCs) and various voltage regulators. In all, there were over 500 networked devices, and we used Cisco products to create a physically separate access layer where they connected to the network.

We then created stacks of five or more switches that were controlled from a single IP address and then installed distribution switches at the company’s data center. As a result, we were able to converge the office and plant networks, and we set up a pair of robust core-layer switches to centrally manage both from a single location.

In another instance, we set up a network for an ice cream plant that had over 1,000 devices and sensors that were shuttling data to its industrial and corporate systems. Again, we had to address the complexity of a dual-purpose network that incorporated previously dumb devices, which were now computer-controlled and feeding information into ERPs and analytics platforms.

Plant managers want production stats, not network stats.

With Cisco, we are building networks that are reliable, predictable, and visible. When a plant manager looks at their network, they don’t care about saturated bandwidth or lost packets. They want to see that they’re meeting production quotas and managing their supply chain. They want to know that their enterprise-grade switches and wireless sensors are helping their plants operate at peak efficiency and profitability, and that a faulty switch won’t cause their factory floor to grind to a halt. 

Smart Factories Are Here to Stay

The trend to smart factories and other production facilities that incorporate the Industrial Internet of Things shows no signs of slowing down. It has brought many new challenges when it comes to building and securing industrial networks and then integrating them with corporate systems.

Fortunately, Cisco has made tremendous inroads in the industrial IT space. Cisco’s industrial-grade routers, switches, and servers are not only weather-sealed but also incorporate IoT technology, secure wireless connectivity, robust security, and edge computing. They are as capable as the company’s bread-and-butter corporate gear, if not more so.

Cisco Identity Service Engine (ISE), Next Generation Firewalls (NGFW), and Industrial Network Director (IND) work together to combat the security issues that industrial network managers encounter daily.

Last year, Cisco acquired Sentryo, a French startup that provides asset visibility and cybersecurity solutions for industrial applications. This acquisition helped Cisco cement its end-to-end IoT portfolio so that it brings together industrial data, network, and cellular connectivity management.  

Staying Ahead of the Industrial IT Curve

Our customers are increasingly asking for secure networks that combine corporate and industrial assets. With Cisco on our side—and nearly 25 years’ experience building and managing factory- and front office-side IT architecture—we’re ready to build the smart networks of tomorrow.

The technology will continue to evolve, and the gear that powers the Industrial Internet of Things may look entirely different five years from now, but our mandate will still be the same: Build reliable networks with minimal downtime.

Thanks to Cisco, we can already perform 90% of all network configuration operations with zero downtime, but we’d like to improve this figure. After all, Cybertrol would like to stay ahead of the curve in an industrial IT space that is still catching up.