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Get smart about smart-factories

Jan. 24, 2022
Ramp up cybersecurity for Industry 4.0

The fourth industrial revolution has dawned, and manufacturers nationwide are quickly capitalizing on the unprecedented opportunities created by the sector’s swift embrace of digital solutions.

Dubbed “Industry 4.0,” this evolution of industry is marked by increasing interconnectivity and automation through artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT), resulting in data-driven smart factories that can take production to new heights.

According to the 6th Annual State of Smart Manufacturing Report, compiled by Plex, a Rockwell Automation company, 80% of manufacturers believe smart factories are the key to future success, with 76% either already having a smart-factory initiative or laying the groundwork for one.

Also read: The Log4j vulnerability: What is it, and should I be concerned?

It’s little wonder. When compared to their analog brethren, smart factories have demonstrated the ability to increase overall production by as much as seven times, but these gains come with serious risks for those who neglect their security needs.

It’s critical to recognize that technology can be a double-edged sword if wielded carelessly. Plant managers and owners who rush to streamline operations with Industry 4.0 technologies before bringing their cybersecurity to a commensurate level will leave themselves exposed to costly cyberattacks, which can cripple production or even destroy equipment, potentially costing major operations millions of dollars or more.

Ramp up while locking down

Outfitting a smart factory means bringing all manner of new devices to the factory floor—new types of devices, operating systems, robots and machines, all of which need to be able to communicate with one another for true interoperability. However, every new piece of technology brought in to improve production also introduces a new threat vector—avenues through which malicious hackers might find their way in.

Cyberattacks on factories can come in many different forms. Sometimes, the goal is covert—to breach the network and lurk undetected for years, leaking proprietary information little by little. This high-tech espionage can target critical IoT devices, sensors or factory robots, but it often comes from less obvious avenues. Hackers can also target security systems, cameras, HVAC, printers or anything else managed by outside vendors whose security may not be up to a company’s typical cyber standards.

Sometimes, however, the goal is much more direct and yet even more damaging: a total crash. Without proper security measures, the digital integration of smart factories makes them easy prey for outside elements looking to bring production off-line, potentially harming or even destroying equipment in the process.

Ultimately, interconnectivity is what makes a smart factory work and opens the door to greatly accelerated production, but there’s a need to meet this technological rollout with equal steps in cybersecurity, ideally through security zones that allow access to critical machinery to be tightly controlled at different levels.

There is, of course, a need to maintain some level of access to keep operations running efficiently, but these zones allow for access to be filtered by need, role, time of day and so on, thus allowing only the right connections to be made.

Imagine a salt-water swimming pool that draws its water from a nearby beach. A massive canal would allow for water to come and go, but could also welcome sharks into the pool. It makes much more sense to use a narrow canal that provides water as needed but keeps the sharks out. It’s the same with network connections—you want to enjoy the benefits of using a remote connection but do it safely.

Open doors by closing gaps

Preventing cyberattacks is certainly the greatest reason for shoring up a factory’s cybersecurity, but the benefits of a well-implemented security system can address many other, less direct costs, as well.

If not done right, security can have its own risks, both from bad actors and in terms of efficiency.

Say a factory that updates to include Industry 4.0 standards needs to bring in 100 new sensors and three different controllers to manage an array of devices across several different operating systems. Taken piecemeal and not thoughtfully consolidated, this could easily result in the addition of seven different remote access tools and as many as eight staff members to manage them all. In this messy scenario, any efficiency gained on the factory floor would quickly be lost in the back offices.

Outside of optimization, trustworthy security can provide many other opportunities for cost saving. Consider a factory that has a million-dollar robot in need of repair, and all the engineers capable of fixing it are on the other side of the world. Flying these experts in is costly, and doing the job over a vulnerable connection could potentially be even more expensive. Investing in secure, well-implemented remote access allows the expert to dial in to fix the robot safely; and the same can be said of other maintenance jobs and big-data queries.

The march of technological adoption is growing ever faster. It’s now more important than ever to meet this evolution by planning cybersecurity from the outset and implementing a holistic approach toward this technology, providing safety, security and scalability that position smart factories to reap enormous economic benefits.

About the author

Sam Heiney is vice president of product at Impero Software. Contact him at [email protected].

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