Chain of Thought

Starving for Efficiency on a No-Wireless Diet

With all the productivity solutions automotive manufacturers have adopted, you'd think wireless technology would qualify as one of those. Not in some plants. Apparently wireless has a way to go before convincing some IT managers of its security.

I learned this from a software vendor sitting in on a supply chain execution systems product section conference at MHIA's annual meeting in Palm Springs last week. This former GM employee told me that until wireless is deemed to have the proper features to make it secure, the plant he worked at is saying “no wireless.”

“There have been people parking their vehicles outside plants tapping into wireless networks to get sensitive production information,” he said. Apparently such pirates can learn things like how many vehicles a plant makes, what styles and what materials they're using. “You can't even plug things in without IT authorizing it,” he added. Now they're getting to the point of segmenting parts of their network, making unsecured portions available to guests.

This gentleman admitted his former employer is missing out on important benefits that come with wireless, and that installing Ethernet drops can cost a lot of money. But aside from security issues, wireless requires careful application. When you carry a wireless device into a data-dense environment to program a PLC, he said, you have to make sure you're talking to the right device. This identifies a common problem in all industries: the need for better communication between IT and its clients.

“There needs to be more give and take between IT and manufacturing on how wireless should be used,” he said. “Wireless can make manufacturing processes more productive because you can switch some process equipment very quickly. This plant decided to give that up.”

I told my new acquaintance I would blog about this to my readers and see how some of them on both the technology vendor and the user sides are coping with wireless security issues. Do policies on wireless usage need to be beefed up at manufacturing plants before this technology is more widely accepted in some applications or is security just a lame excuse not to dent the IT budget? Let's get some two-way communication going.

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