Technology has transformed nearly every aspect of our society — everyday communications, how and where we work, and the way products are made. In the digital age, developing and implementing technology has become a top priority for businesses of all sizes in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors.
For example, as of 2021, an estimated 90% of companies used some type of cloud service. This trend of maximizing technology is expected to continue for the foreseeable future across nearly every kind of organization and industry.
Today, interest in information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) is growing. Both fields are helping businesses and industries improve efficiencies through the use of technology, and both offer workers greater job satisfaction and unprecedented flexibility in terms of remote work. Comparing IT vs. OT reveals many similar benefits; however, the terms aren’t entirely the same.
What Is OT?
While many people are familiar with the term information technology, or IT, they may still wonder what operational technology (OT) is. For decades, OT was less well known because it was limited in scope to the production and manufacturing of goods in specific industries, while IT was used more broadly. OT involves the use of proprietary software and hardware to manage and control mechanical, electronic, and other devices in the physical world.
Some examples of integral OT systems are industrial control systems, fire control systems, and building management systems. OT systems are especially useful in the following industries:
- Public utility plants (power, wastewater, etc.)
- Oil and gas
In general, the OT systems in these industries must run 24/7, as interruptions would have serious consequences for the production of critically needed goods (for example, oil and gas) and the provision of utilities, such as wastewater treatment and the HVAC system in an office building.
OT may be broken down into key systems that include:
- Programmable logic controllers (PLCs)
- Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems
- Industrial control systems (ICSs)
- Distributed control systems (DCSs)
One common type of hardware used for industrial automation is programmable logic controllers (PLCs). PLCs follow a set of rules and logic to perform a preprogrammed task or process. Some only handle a single-unit operation, while others can automate an entire production line. Some examples of PLCs are on/off switches, sensors, and float switches. One place where PLCs are found is inside municipal waste plants.
Complementary to PLC hardware, supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems are the software enabling automation in industrial processes. SCADA has the ability to connect a remote server with sensors that monitor motors, pumps, and other industrial equipment.
The real-time data gathered by SCADA allows managers to control equipment from remote locations. SCADA is commonly found at manufacturing plants, wastewater treatment plants, and oil and gas refineries, among other industries.
Industrial control systems (ICSs) are digital devices used in industrial processes. Both PLCs and SCADA are classified as ICSs.
Distributed control systems (DCSs) — also part of the ICS family — refer to the computerized systems of sensors and controllers used to manage operations within an industrial plant. They’re common in the petrochemical industry and municipal wastewater management.
DCSs are closely related to PLCs; historically, PLCs were capable of handling a limited number of controllers but are becoming more sophisticated. They may one day be able to handle thousands of interacting control loops like DCSs.
ICS and DCS are useful systems in OT to make operations more efficient. Additionally, there are four recognized theories of modern operations management further improve the efficiency of business and manufacturing processes: business process redesign (BPR), reconfigurable manufacturing systems, Six Sigma, and lean manufacturing practices.