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This blog covers numerous topics on industrial automation such as operations & management, continuous & batch processing, connectivity, manufacturing & machine control, and Industry 4.0.

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5 Ways Manufacturers Can Protect Their IP

Industry 4.0 is defined by the marriage of the digital and the physical, taking the form of smart factories in manufacturing. These facilities host advanced Internet of Things (IoT) systems, machine learning (ML), and even personalization capabilities thanks to additive manufacturing.

Manufacturing specialists are contending with new kinds of cyberthreats due to this level of connectivity. Besides garden-variety cybersecurity problems like malware and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, factories must also protect their intellectual property (IP) from those who would compromise and misuse it. IP protection for manufacturers is now essential, so here are several ways they can keep their IP safe in the age of the smart factory.

1. Set Limits on Authorized Production 

Additive manufacturing—3D printing—is a marquee feature of Industry 4.0. Some manufacturers don't realize that its benefits also result in susceptibilities. The ability to exchange data files containing complete schematics for parts or products means companies don't have to exchange raw materials. Instead, the designer can simply transmit the plans to their partner.

However, there’s a potential for loss. If the data is compromised at any point in transit, bad actors could reproduce the part or product an unlimited number of times and flood the market with convincing counterfeits. To combat this, manufacturers can protect their IP through new techniques that embed hard limits within the design file for how many times 3D printing plans can be used to create a new item.

2. Get IT and OT on the Same Page

One of the proximate causes of cybersecurity incidents in manufacturing—and a reason companies have trouble with IP protection for manufacturers—concerns information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT). IT and OT teams are frequently invested in, built out, and planned in a way that causes friction between them. A manufacturer's IT department probably has certain cybersecurity expectations, but its OT purchasing section might not share these priorities.

For example, a predictive IoT-based system might enable proactive maintenance, which is essential for the longevity of any mechanical equipment. However, this level of integration between physical and digital systems can be a threat without the right precautions.

Getting IT and OT on the same page is critical. Leaders on the factory floor often make OT purchasing decisions. IT is not usually included, which can lead to technologies that aren't ideally compatible, with exploitable gaps in security measures and a general clash of cultures where cyberthreats are concerned. Manufacturers would be wise to keep their IT specialists in the loop during any discussion about bringing new OT aboard.

3. Include Mechanisms for Detecting Cyberthreats

Many companies implement security measures on their websites to ensure only authorized parties access their web properties. Of these, detecting potentially fraudulent activity before the worst damage is made is perhaps the most important. This challenge becomes even more difficult as manufacturing technology ecosystems expand and grow more complex. It's one thing to police a website for bots or hackers seeking to do damage, but how can manufacturers keep all their connected IoT nodes safe from bad actors?

Many of the prevention techniques used in IT apply to OT as well, but most haven't connected these dots yet. Some 90% of manufacturers say they can detect cyber events in advance throughout their IT systems, but few say the same about their IT ecosystems. Companies can and should make use of advanced monitoring tools—typically involving ML and artificial intelligence (AI)—to automatically find and flag suspicious behavior on their IoT and OT networks before intruders have a chance to seize valuable data.

4. Know What’s Being Bought

People typically think of the IoT in manufacturing as a distributed computing network, and it is. Unfortunately, one of the major pitfalls of this technology is that it's not as decentralized as it appears. Conventional IoT and OT buildouts are not created with security as a top priority, and they require sending streams of sensitive data to remote, centrally-controlled servers. This means a single IoT device with an unaddressed exploit could put entire networks—and IP—at risk.

Manufacturers can protect their IP by knowing what they're buying before they invest in IoT and smart factory technologies. There will be around 30 billion connected devices in the world by 2030. A new approach known as “chip-to-cloud” eliminates these products' familiar security shortcomings. Whereas conventional IoT devices don’t have enough onboard computing power to run native cybersecurity tools, chip-to-cloud gadgets are designed with their own cryptography engines.

Each node can have its own defenses instead of manufacturers relying on single, network-wide firewalls to protect their vulnerable IoT nodes. Security cannot be taken for granted if a single device can compromise a manufacturer’s entire operation and business advantage. Companies should know what they’re buying by singling out products with robust cybersecurity protections built in.

5. Learn About IP Legal Protections

Most of these points are about preventing IP theft by combining standard cybersecurity measures with those designed specifically for distributed computing. But what happens if an IP is compromised, and a company hasn’t taken the proper steps to protect it?

There are four primary ways manufacturers can protect their IP from infringement:

  • Utility patents: For heretofore undocumented inventions and innovations
  • Copyrights: For artistic and creative works
  • Trademarks: For slogans, logos, and other branding devices
  • Trade secrets: For protecting unique manufacturing processes

The two of most interest to manufacturers are utility patents and trade secrets. The former protects manufacturing innovations for 20 years and is legally enforceable. Trade secrets do not offer legal protection in the same way, but are just as relevant to manufacturers in the times of Industry 4.0.

When it comes to additive and advanced manufacturing, the methods used to create a product are just as important to protect as the design. Practitioners of Industry 4.0 may have novel ways to use plastics and alloys or may have discovered an extremely material-efficient way to create a component that retains its tensile strength. It makes sense to protect innovations like these and ensure legal action can be taken upon its theft.

Manufacturers can contact relevant councils like the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) or the European Patent Office (EPO) for complete guidance on how to protect manufacturing and trade secrets sufficiently. Such groups will also have timely advice about the degree to which 3D manufacturing design data files can be protected by copyright, patents, or trade secrets.

Documentation is often key. Manufacturers that can provide sufficient documentation showing one of their techniques is unique and that they took reasonable measures to keep it secret will find most courts will help them protect their property in the event of theft.

Understanding IP Protection for Manufacturers

The world’s manufacturing and supply chain apparatus has never been more advanced or vulnerable. There are new threats to IP, even with novel ways to keep workers safe and assembly lines humming along. New ways to connect and realize greater productivity opens factories to the potential loss of highly profitable materials. Safeguarding the user consoles, cloud data sets, and distributed logic systems in modern factories is no small task, but it’s essential.

Emily Newton
Emily Newton
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine celebrating advances in science and technology.

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