The pandemic has undoubtedly created a sense of urgency around the need for digital transformation including the significance of enabling a robust remote access environment. Of course, in order to make this a reality that extends into the most critical environments, manufacturing leaders need to nurture the concept of a connected worker. Naturally, buy-in is crucial for the connected worker concept to actually work, especially when the goal is to provide seamless access that includes the OT environment.  

The City of Lima, OH has been on the digital transformation journey including rolling out the concept of the connected worker. And, Stratus Technologies has played a key role. It is an interesting example of the connected worker because key infrastructure supporting residents understandably cannot experience an interruption, even during a pandemic. 

Read on gain insights from their experiences thus far.  

IW: Why is the concept of a connected worker important today? 

Stratus Technologies Vice President of Business Line Management Jason Andersen: It’s important for a few reasons but the one that sticks out the most is safety. There are a lot of essential workers out there and often they are in compromised or challenging environments. Understanding a connected worker’s whereabouts and even biometric information in real time can help ensure their safety and if their status changes, help can be deployed immediately. However, there are other ways connected workers add value as well. A connected worker solution may help with new employee training or enabling a remote expert to participate in a process virtually, both of which can increase productivity. 

City of Lima Computer Programmer Matt Fiedler: Connectivity has become extremely important to help keep everyone productive and safe.  Access to remote work for certain tasks has allowed us at the City of Lima to keep doing our jobs. With my IT background, the connected worker has always been important, but I also understand the importance of OT skills in my line of work to allow increased productivity and troubleshooting while minimizing security risk to the SCADA network.  In the past, it was about making sure we could work efficiently, now we have seen the benefit in a new light due to COVID-19. Onsite plant operations needs have remained the same, but if some personnel had to be quarantined, we would still be able to work from outside the fences.

IW: What have been the primary benefits of empowering connected workers?

Fiedler: The primary benefits of being a connected worker has been an increased speed in completing tasks.  Being able to remote in either from my office or home has allowed troubleshooting, maintenance and monitoring to be much faster.  In the past it could take 45 mins by the time I got on site, instead I can remote in and fix some issues in 10 mins.  Increased security has been another benefit.  Being connected has allowed more control and monitoring of the OT side to make sure performance is at its best while monitoring for potential security breaches. Also keeping everything updated as new patches come out has been a huge plus.  Having backups and redundancy is key as well.  Being able to quickly resume work allows you to not have to worry as much if downtime occurs.  With virtual machines, offsite backups, and redundant hardware you have many mechanisms in place to make sure your network keeps running if there are any issues.  Less downtime overall means everyone can keep working without having to shift their focus on timely or costly repairs.

IW: What challenges have you encountered in realizing the connected worker status? 

Fiedler: A challenge I have seen has been the lack of IT/OT convergence.  Next would be implementing proper security to devices and the network, and cost is another hurdle that some organizations have to overcome to get everything connected properly.

Anderson: Connected worker uses often just starts out as a data collection solution and the hurdles often settle around solution, cost and connectivity.  But as you start to see real time or more immersive solutions, connectivity will need to increase and reliability and security will become an increasingly important.

IW: How can organizations overcome these challenges?

Fiedler: A way to overcome IT/OT convergence is to get everyone involved in projects and monthly meetings.  For us it was much easier since my background and role is IT, but I have spent the last seven years learning OT skills. Learning how both sides work will result in a smoother transition to complete the tasks at hand. IT’s needs have always changed faster than OT’s, but with increased IP connectivity, OT is starting to see an increase as well. This leads into increased security needs to ensure protection across teams.  IT/OT now need to work together to keep security measures in place and up to date.  Security in a SCADA network has changed from being physically separate to digitally separated and secured. Planning ahead will allow you to budget in the items you need to make sure the network is connected properly and effectively.  The cost of keeping equipment up to date and having an accurate replacement schedule is the only way to not be surprised when future upgrades occur.  We are always looking at real time data to make sure our equipment doesn’t fall behind and becomes more costly to maintain or upgrade.

Andersen: We are starting to see more customers deploying hardened edge computing devices to enable real time solutions for connected workers. That could be something like an augmented reality tool for a service and diagnostics application. The richness of some of these tools require a locally running compute device. Additionally, we see an ultimate need for enterprise IT capabilities including security for all the devices and sensors that will be interacting with many workers. As with everything else IIoT related, the connected worker will be part of the exponential increase of devices and data at the Edge.

IW: What technologies have surfaced as the most important? 

Fiedler: The most important technologies would have to be a solid network in place for both IT/OT.  Next would be a good backup and disaster recovery plan. Lastly, a great SCADA support for your hardware and software to keep your equipment safe from the increasing threats from the outside world. 

Andersen: We are seeing connected worker solutions align with existing projects which means technologies like virtualization can help significantly. Additionally, once workers get connected it becomes a crucial part of their toolkit and connectivity must be reliable or they will not be able to work. That is where redundant edge computing devices, such as ztC edge, play a crucial role.