3 December, 2020

Probing the security issue

26 October, 2020

Data is playing an ever larger and more important role within manufacturing and related industrial and mobile disciplines through the increased use of connectivity among embedded systems and other types of IT, automation and robotics solutions. In the UK, the journey towards greater levels of digital transformation has for several years been overshadowed by many of our foreign counterparts. However, the current pandemic could provide the spur for more UK firms to investment in automation technology and embrace the concept of digital transformation to a larger degree. And as this move gets more traction within UK industry, the importance of data will come even more to the fore. However, along with greater reliance on system data for business, operational, control and analytical purposes etc., comes a potential threat; one that can become highly debilitating for a company if not managed effectively. The threat in question is, of course, security. Therefore, how to manage the security of data is rightly a key area of discussion for many companies.


During the recent DFA Media Talking Industry webinar titled ‘Increasing Automation in the post-Covid era’, Brendan O’Dowd, general manager, industrial automation at Analog Devices, made the point that we have seen security increase in importance over the past few years due to some notable high-profile hacks. He reflects that manufacturing equipment is now much more connected than it used to be, and that connectivity is driving some real productivity improvements. He adds that data can help to enhance processes and efficiencies but points out that it can also provide opportunities for bad actors to exploit weaknesses in a company’s security regime if the right protocols are not in place. “Nobody really wants to consider that the local nuclear power plant could be hacked,” he remarks, adding that this security issue, of course, also applies to equipment and components such as valves and flowmeters through to the control systems. “So, we have to make sure that these systems are robust and secure against people doing things they shouldn't,” he stresses.

O’Dowd makes the point that, historically, security issues could arise if someone in a control room pressed a wrong button. However, he says key concerns today can revolve around someone with a laptop opening the wrong program or plugging in a rogue USB stick, as well as hackers deliberately trying to hold companies to ransom. O’Dowd adds that the ISA/IEC 62443 standards set out to address these security issues, but he believes many UK manufacturing facilities are still rather behind in this topic. “I think it's something that we should try to accelerate,” he says.

Mike Wilson, chief automation officer (technology strategy) at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), maintains that the more we apply automation and connectivity the more security can become a significant issue. Therefore, he believes equipment ideally needs to have effective levels of security built in to avoid unnecessary retrofits further down the line. “I know there are a lot of people working on this, but I don't think we really have the answer sorted yet,” he says. Wilson observes that there are still ways people can bypass systems and get in, maybe via the legacy equipment; old systems that do not have the same security levels as some more modern equipment.




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