The five-minute CIO: Shane Loughlin, SL Controls

25 Nov 2016

SL Controls co-founder and CTO, Shane Loughlin. Image: Colin Gillen/

“There is a lot of hype out there and many customers have unrealistic expectations based on technology being oversold. So don’t be afraid to state that something is not possible,” advises Shane Loughlin.

Shane Loughlin is co-founder and chief technology officer at SL Controls. Loughlin is a recognised industry expert with more than thirty years’ experience in equipment systems integration.

He heads up the strategic consultancy division within SL Controls.

McLoughlin also lectures at University of Limerick (UL), where he was recently involved in developing a new Master’s in mechatronics. The programme was developed alongside industry experts and is the first of its kind in Europe.

Established in 2002, SL Controls has evolved into an internationally recognised industry leader in equipment system integration and system support. SL Controls works with companies in the pharma, medical device, healthcare, and food and beverage sectors, which require high-level expertise in industrial IT integration and regulatory compliance.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

Being cloud-based is of the utmost importance for our business. It allows us to collaborate seamlessly with global teams, both within SL Controls and with federated organisations.

The main improvements from our technology roll-out are that it enables us to provide our services globally, they are infinitely scalable, and [it] means we don’t have to focus on scaling up our IT.

Office 365 is also important, in particular for education.

We recently collaborated with UL, to work together with emerging students and to prepare them for Industry 4.0. Also known as the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 includes technologies such as automation, autonomous robots, the internet of things (IoT) and cloud computing, all of which have recently evolved and transformed the way manufacturing facilities are designed and supported.

Industry 4.0 requires the creation of hybrid products’ which consist of both products and services. By leveraging IoT and cloud technologies, along with key equipment partners, SL Controls is at the forefront of creating these hybrid products for the manufacturing sector.

What are the main points of your company’s IT strategy?

In terms of our internal IT system, being cloud based enables us to provide our services to a global base, in real time and across multiple device platforms.

Being able to reach a larger audience with no scaling required is a huge advantage. For example, Skype for Business Broadcast can have up to 10,000 attendees at any one time.

At SL Controls, we are leading the way for Industry 4.0 in Ireland, and in doing so, we’re also developing the industry’s understanding of it, and ensuring engineering graduates have the proper skill set required.

We have created a number of programmes – The ESE Academy and ECubers – to not only educate students to the level required to work within the ever-evolving industry, but also to attract young people to study and pursue careers in engineering.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your IT infrastructure is?

At SL Controls, we have five main offices (Sligo, Limerick, Galway, Dublin, Birmingham) with VPN connectivity across all of them. We use local servers for certain applications like AD, File Share and VMware for virtualisation. Across all offices, we also use cloud-based Office 365, laptops, tablets and smartphones.

In terms of managing IT budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

It’s important to set realistic targets, and this needs to be the primary focus. There is a lot of hype out there and many customers have unrealistic expectations based on technology being oversold. So don’t be afraid to state that something is not possible. Always select and work with reputable vendors. Never get sucked into trying to create a solution which will become mission critical without an adequate budget.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Initially, our infrastructure was extremely complex for the size of our organisation. We had a small business server, on-premise Lync, multiple Linux servers and numerous NAS [servers]. We then transitioned to a virtualised environment which enabled us to achieve significant simplification from a hardware perspective. We are now further simplifying the infrastructure by migrating where possible to cloud.

Do you have a large in-house IT team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

We locally outsource our AD, VMware and hardware support for servers, laptops and tablets. Utilisation of Office 365 features virtually eliminates the requirement for an in-house team. Traditionally, we had an in-house team when we had on-premise servers, but that is no longer required.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

My main responsibilities are technically focused. I scout for suitable technologies which can advance the business, I then perform a proof of principle which enables us to scope out a project. When we have the project scoped and costed, the SL Controls management team manage the project roll-out.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Security and data integrity [are] always a critical concern. The risks are always present but proper risk analysis and mitigation strategies, in conjunction with outsourcing to leading providers and securing locally, has worked for us to date.

The benefits of networking and collaborating with peers should not be underestimated.

By working with professional organisations, it is possible for us to share best working practices in large seminars. We recently hosted a seminar in Sligo with the International Society for Pharmaceutical Engineering on data integrity and security, and over 100 professionals from the industry were in attendance.

One emerging challenge which we are focused on is the utilisation of time-sensitive networks, which are critical for Industry 4.0. A lot of development is required but it has the opportunity to provide significant advantages.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well IT is performing?

We utilise an internal ITIL-compliant service desk for incident, problem and change management.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where IT can improve, and what are they?

One of the big challenges which we are constantly struggling with is how best to manage secure remote access across multiple platforms such as Windows and Linux. There are good solutions for either one in isolation, but when both technologies have to be implemented in a single infrastructure, there are significant technical issues. It would be a significant step forward if both communities could collaborate to solve these issues, as opposed to competing directly.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

We will be expanding our use of Skype for Business in order to ensure that we minimise our communications costs. We will also be utilising more workflow and automation features in SharePoint, in order to ensure that our document creation, feedback and approval functions are as efficient as possible.

We will be focusing heavily on creating and commercialising many of our knowledge assets. The Office 365 platform, with a particular focus on Office Mix and Skype for Business Broadcast, will be key enablers for the provision of these services on a global basis.

We are always focused on education, and providing the engineers of the future with adequate skills for the changing industry. We’re looking forward to continuing to work with UL to continue with the roll-out of our ECubers programme in schools across Ireland. ECubers strives to attract students to further studies in engineering, with practical learning workshops as opposed to rote learning, which unfortunately is extremely common in many academic environments.

We are always looking at ways in which we can collaborate with other organisations, and we have a number of quality and management projects in the pipeline. We are really looking forward to 2017, and think it will be an exciting year for SL Controls.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years