Integrating cloud technology with Operational Technology (OT) at industrial sites holds the potential to reshape the way industrial operations are managed and optimized, leading to new gains in productivity and efficiency. However, this transformation is not without its challenges and complexities. We detail the convergence of cloud and operational technology, exploring the hurdles that must be overcome and the architectural solutions that can pave the way for successful implementation.

Challenges in integrating cloud technology at industrial sites

Unique site characteristics

Industrial sites are highly customized environments, each with its own set of unique characteristics, equipment, and processes. The diversity among these sites extends to the sensors, data management methods, and control systems employed. This inherent variability complicates the standardization and analysis of equipment data across sites. For instance, the distinct structuring of equipment data at various sites can hinder large-scale analysis, a challenge further intensified by the emergence of disruptive technologies like generative AI.

Physical safety systems

Safety is paramount at industrial sites, where safety-critical systems, such as maintenance systems and personnel trackers, are in place. These systems often rely on on-premises technology and are closely linked to specially designed industrial process controllers. Any failure or compromise in these systems could have dire consequences, not just in terms of operational efficiency but also in terms of physical safety. Thus, the integration of cloud technology must be approached with a focus on maintaining robust and secure infrastructure.

Connectivity issues

Connectivity is another major obstacle. Many of these industrial sites are located in remote areas, far from urban centers where high-speed internet access is readily available. As a result, they often rely on satellite links, which, while reliable for certain applications, may not be efficient for mass data transfer to the cloud. Moreover, some systems are intentionally isolated from external networks for cybersecurity reasons, which limits the scope of data transfer to and from the cloud.

Proposed architecture for cloud integration

Site-level assets and activities

To address the challenges posed by the unique characteristics of industrial sites, the adoption of standards like OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) for site data collection can be a game-changer. OPC UA provides a framework for seamless data exchange and integration, fostering interoperability across various systems and devices. A Hybrid Cloud Architecture at the site level is a strategic move, aiming to improve data operations by leveraging both Cloud-Based tools and Edge Computing. Edge Computing, with its ability to process data locally, becomes a valuable asset in overcoming telecommunication reliability issues.

Secure connectivity

Maintaining the integrity and security of data is paramount in the integration of cloud technology at industrial sites. Edge Computing plays a pivotal role in this aspect by enabling the storage and processing of data locally. During connectivity gaps, when data transfer to the cloud might be disrupted, Edge Computing ensures that critical operations continue without interruption. Security measures, such as end-to-end encryption and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), further fortify the data exchanges between the cloud and the on-premises environments, ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of sensitive information.

Cloud platform utilization

Cloud Platforms are tailor-made for analytics and application development, offering scalable solutions for data life-cycle management. They provide the ideal ecosystem for harnessing the power of advanced tools like machine learning and artificial intelligence for data analysis. One notable innovation on the horizon is generative AI, which holds the promise of revolutionizing how industrial data is processed and utilized. By capitalizing on Cloud Platforms, industrial sites can stay at the forefront of technological advancements and unlock new possibilities for optimization.

Implementation and applications

Site assets

Implementing cloud-based tools can bring about a profound transformation in the way industrial sites manage their assets. These tools have the potential to automate routine tasks in data management, freeing up valuable human resources for more strategic and creative endeavors.

Edge Computing seamlessly integrates with existing site technology, enabling the development of high-impact user-facing channels like dashboards and applications. These user-friendly interfaces empower operators and decision-makers with real-time insights, enhancing their ability to make informed choices.

Analytics and applications

Cloud technology opens the door to advanced analytics, a cornerstone of Digital Transformation. The ability to collect, process, and analyze vast amounts of data in real time can lead to game-changing insights. For instance, consider a wireless equipment manufacturer that increased its throughput by 10-15% by implementing 34 Cloud-Enabled applications and analytics use cases. These applications covered a wide spectrum, including digital performance management and augmented reality for maintenance and troubleshooting.

Getting started

Transitioning to a Hybrid Cloud Architecture is a strategic move that requires careful planning and execution. The journey begins with identifying the areas where the integration of cloud technology can deliver the most value. This involves a thorough assessment of existing processes and workflows, as well as an evaluation of the potential benefits. 

Once the areas of focus are identified, a comprehensive plan should be developed, addressing the technical aspects of Edge implementation and adapter development. Pilot use cases provide an opportunity to test the waters and gain real-world experience, allowing for learning and adaptation as needed.

Final thoughts

Integrating cloud technology with operational technology at industrial sites holds immense promise for enhancing productivity, efficiency, and safety. However, this transformation is not without its unique challenges, from the diversity of site characteristics to the criticality of physical safety systems and connectivity issues. To harness the full potential of cloud computing in the industrial sector, a strategic approach involving hybrid cloud architecture and edge computing is a must.

Tim Boesen

February 1, 2024

5 Min