Rockwell Automation’s Mike Loughran on technology for technology’s sake

29 Nov 2019

Mike Loughran. Image: Rockwell Automation

Mike Loughran, UK and Ireland CTO at Rockwell Automation, discusses the need for balance in the application of emerging technologies.

Mike Loughran is CTO for the UK and Ireland at Rockwell Automation, a provider of industrial automation and information technology. He has been with the company for more than 13 years, having begun in the area of software sales and moving up the ladder to the C-suite position he now holds.

Here, Loughran details some of the struggles associated with digital transformation, the scalable computing that cloud enables and more.

‘We talk about people, process and technology. If you don’t use all three, you are very unlikely to succeed’

Tell me about your own role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy?

My team and I are responsible for promoting Rockwell Automation products and services. We work with our customers to help them become more productive, profitable and sustainable.

Rockwell Automation has created our own strategies to address customer requirements, as well as their own business KPIs. We also adopt a full life-cycle approach, meaning that we don’t just support them in the here and now, but also with their legacy and future requirements.

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

The major initiatives that we are spearheading both internally and with our customers are focused on the industrial internet of things.

We don’t tend to focus on technology alone, however – we talk about people, process and technology. If you don’t use all three, you are very unlikely to succeed. New innovations are changing how we work, live and how things get made. We work hard to connect the imaginations of people with the potential of machines to make the world workplace better.

How big is your team? Do you outsource where possible?

My immediate team is about 20 people, and my wider UK and Ireland team is over 500 people, all of whom are customer-focused.

As well as being a technology software and hardware provider, we are also a large systems and support provider. When you look at the areas where customers are struggling, for example skills shortages and bringing people into industry, very often our customers are looking for people with specific industry and application experience.

They need to be advised so they can focus on doing what they do well, ie medical device or chip production. We are there to support them in doing the best they can for their own customers, not necessarily to be in-depth technical visionaries.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it?

We hear a lot about digital transformation, sometimes too much.

When I talk to customers, one thing I identify is that they do believe digitalisation can help them, but they are just not sure where to start. This is an issue as a lot of customers end up being stuck in the proof-of-concept stage. They may have identified something but rarely scale it, so they never reap the benefits. This can happen due to something as simple as choosing the right part.

We have implemented what we call the ‘connected enterprise’ consultancy team. This is a team dedicated to working with our customers to help them on their digital journey, identify areas where they can improve, provide them with the metrics, and create short, medium and long-term plans around implementation.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

From a trends point of view, we are seeing several key ones such as a ‘digital twin’, easily accessible analytics and AI, and the use of augmented and virtual reality.

From a ‘digital twin’ perspective, we can provide a whole host of great benefits to our customers. They can now link or replicate what they call a physical asset, which could be anything from a machine, right up to a full factory. Consumer requirements are constantly changing, so our customers must adapt, perform and supply the demand that is required. If we can speed that up, it helps them get to market, become more productive, efficient and profitable.

Increasing workforce productivity by utilising AR and VR is helping to better train the next generation of maintenance, support and operations engineers. In many cases, the technology is supporting machines that these industrial professionals have never seen before. Blending the old with the new is exciting.

If you bring people, processes and technology together, then you have a very powerful combination. Technology for technology’s sake is never a great thing, especially in manufacturing, but by bringing together the new with old, it provides some real benefits.

Finally, we have never had so much access to low-cost, low-friction and secure, scalable computing, which the cloud enables. Leading cloud providers such as Microsoft Azure are building in security features which address some of our manufacturing customers’ concerns around CFR21, pharmaceutical applications and surrounding issues.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

Security continues to be a concern, but we shouldn’t let this put us off. What we should do is acknowledge the potential threat and then build out systems accordingly.

If you look at the IT and enterprise space within our customers, they have been doing that for many years. When you apply the same principles to the operational space, then that is relatively simple if you follow international standards.

We promote the ‘defence-in-depth’  approach, which aligns with ISA99 standards and recommendations, and highlights the importance of applying the right amount of security at the right level. Security is frictionless, it should not prevent people from doing their jobs, nor prevent productivity. It should enhance it.

By applying the right approach and working as a team with the IT department, manufacturers and the outside body, we think customers can improve productivity around manufacturing by putting in the right levels of security, the right levels of access both to employees and the support team.

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