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Technology on the Plant Floor: Proceed with Caution

Feb. 4, 2015
Industrial Ethernet and wireless communication offer great efficiency gains, but they also carry security baggage.

Any event that disrupts the screening of a Seth Rogen movie is to be applauded, and in that respect the canceled opening of “The Interview” after North Korean operatives hacked the computer servers of Sony Pictures was a good thing.

It also served as a reminder — for those who’d missed reports about cyber attacks at Home Depot, JPMorgan Chase and other large corporations a few months beforehand — of the vulnerability of information in the Age of Interconnectivity. Between ransomware, malicious hackers and cybercriminals, it’s no wonder that security specialists are in-demand members of the automation technology community.

It also helps explain why food and beverage companies long have cast a wary eye on remote monitoring and troubleshooting programs from OEMs and service providers that promise to provide improved uptime and optimized machine performance but require access to a plant’s data network. Inadvertent malware downloads from email attachments and Trojan horse jump drives add to stress levels that already run high.

The growth of hacker-for-hire networks adds to the anxiety. Once the domain of social activists and gamers more intent on cracking into the PlayStation Network than commercial enterprises, services like HackersList.com and NeighborHoodHacker.com help match businesses and individuals with computer-savvy specialists.

Some of the relationships are benign or even beneficial: A growing segment of NeighborHoodHacker’s clients are businesses worried about unauthorized access to data by company insiders (the website's tagline is "certified ethical hackers for hire"). More worrisome are businesspeople soliciting technical assistance to raid their competitors’ databases for customer lists and contract amounts.

Reverting to proprietary control networks would ease the angst, but that’s not going to happen. Automation managers have seen the industrial Ethernet promised land, and they’re not turning back. “Most industrial networks are relatively hardened, and security is not as big a hang-up as it should be,” observes Gerald Beaudoin, automation project manager at Leahy Orchards Inc. in Franklin Centre, Quebec.

He’d like more comprehensive controls-security support from his automation vendor, but he recognizes his warehouses and production facility are low-value targets. “We’re making apple sauce, after all,” says Beaudoin.

If in-plant networks make people squirm, what’s the stress level when mobile devices are added to the mix? It may seem counter-intuitive, but the answer is: not much higher.

“It is not data that is being protected here, it is communication with sensitive devices,” points out the controls director at a major food corporation in an email exchange. If access to the data is routed via cloud computing, the service provider ends up “protecting objects in their control and allowing proper access to the protected area,” he adds. “I am not aware of a service that can meet” the security requirements of the control network itself.

Andreas Thome, PC control product manager at Beckhoff Automation, models a set of Google glasses that can be used to access plant-floor data. A range of mobile devices can be used to download machine control data via the cloud.


Wireless communication with control networks may give a case of the vapors to some, but the productivity advantages are simply too great to just say no. All supervisors at Keasby, N.J.-based Wakefern Food Corp. are equipped with iPads, allowing them to access information in the field without returning to the office as they did in years past, says Pete Rolandelli, vice president of logistics and warehousing. Likewise, voice-selection technology keeps lift truck operators moving without stopping to pick up paper work orders. Hacking into encrypted data is not a big concern, he says. “We’re big time into security.”

Data, encrypted or otherwise, isn’t the real concern. Penetration of the control network is where the real danger lies. Wireless security is a separate issue, and that reality is helping expand wireless and remote access.

Beckhoff Automation demonstrated the possibilities at Pack Expo 2014 with what it described as Google Glass technology. Billing it variously as a “wearable HMI” or “HDI” (human device interface) for machine operation and plant monitoring, Beckhoff’s demo was in conjunction with Matrix Packaging Machinery.

Google Glass was a convenient hook, but any wireless device with a browser could be used — at the Beckhoff booth, a technician used a smart watch to manipulate a robot’s motion. Smart phones won’t replace industrial HMIs anytime soon, but the ability to execute machine commands on a wireless device presents intriguing possibilities.

“This is a complementary device,” says Daymon Thompson, TwinCAT product specialist at Savage, Minn.-based Beckhoff. “I don’t see any trend toward replacing an HMI with a handheld device.” Nonetheless, the underlying technology enables more than status reports and alarm notifications.

Thompson says a German manufacturer of custom kitchens is using the connectivity model to drive “object-oriented manufacturing,” with work orders downloaded and translated into logic and motion commands to the machines that execute fabrication.

For the Pack Expo demonstration, scanning a QR code granted access to machine controls. In practice, encrypted real-time data would be uploaded to the cloud and accessed after entering a user name and password. A delay of “a few hundred milliseconds” would be all that separated machine response via remote control from commands entered by an individual in the plant, according to Thompson.

The OPC unified architecture protocol is used for data encryption, limiting applications to PC-based controls using Microsoft Windows. Data security is overseen by the cloud’s operator, and that organization likely can maintain more firewalls than a manufacturer’s on-premise security officer can, he suggests.

While Thompson focuses on alerts and analytics, Matrix general manager Marc Wilden sees higher value. “You could use Google Glass to control the machine,” speeding and slowing solenoids and executing other machine changes with the connectivity, Wilden maintains in a YouTube video. In the event of a downtime event, the operator or mechanic could use an iPad or other device to view a remotely stored repair video or allow the OEM’s tech support technicians to view what’s happening on the floor from hundreds of miles away.

Defense in depth

Google Glasses and iPhones aside, remote access to food machinery controls is increasing in one form or another. “We are using remote support today with internally supported access control and connection routing through multiple tools,” the aforementioned controls director writes. “The delegation of remote support to ‘second’ level support (when the local staff cannot handle the problem) would benefit from having eyes on the physical things going, though current speeds do not give true on-site capabilities.”

“Defense in depth with multiple safeguards” is the watchword at Leahy Orchards, whether it's wireless communications on the floor or in-house networks, says Beaudoin. “You have to set the goal way out there and keep moving along in increments.”

His security wake-up call came in the 2010 Stuxnet event, when a USB stick was used to plant malware in computer networks used in Iran’s nuclear development program. The worm infiltrated PLCs in the network, ultimately taking control of nuclear centrifuges and causing them to spin at a velocity that destroyed them. As a result, USB sticks were banned from Leahy’s shop floor, as was Internet access. Technicians were frustrated, but “when you explain the problems that have occurred, they accept it,” he says.

A recent incremental defense introduced at Leahy is the Hirschmann Eagle Tofino, a control network zone level security switch. The appliance plugs into a PLC and monitors traffic going through it. If a deviation occurs, the switch can either send out an alert or block the commands entirely.

IT professionals live and breathe security, with level 3 switches old hat. Production technicians don’t share that orientation. “It’s hard to get people who are well versed in both areas,” reflects Beaudoin, which is why he’s grooming an IT specialist to be his next control network manager.

The benefits of mobility and connectivity are too compelling to be ignored, and there is an expectation in the new generation of workers that they will be able to leverage the technology. The only caveat is to proceed with caution.

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