OPC Unified Architecture infrastructure for the future
A common, open, platform-independent, web services facility that standardizes automation transactions
By Thomas Burke
There are a growing number of great embedded innovations and technologies today, including BlackBerry phones, iPhones, iPads, embedded human machine interface (HMI) panels, intelligent building automation, and security devices. There are also great innovations and technologies available enabling interoperability, including wireless networking and cloud computing. Great innovations and technologies are fine, but what are the business justifications that motivate vendors and end users to adopt these leading-edge products and systems?
The automation industry must evaluate and determine the application of various technologies and innovations available today and tomorrow with a keen eye to how these technologies can provide a secure reliable interoperable solution that addresses real needs. Great technical innovations that were wonderful academic research projects often don’t get adopted because they are too difficult to deploy. They also need to address real-world problems and produce sufficient business value to justify their total cost of implementation.
OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) provides the automation industry a tremendous opportunity to gain efficiencies and create new solutions with the seamless interoperability of systems. This article provides an introspective with respect to technical innovations and the business value, focusing on the concept of interoperability for moving data and information from embedded devices into the enterprise and the cloud (for computing and data storage). This article will address the opportunity for vendors, suppliers, and end users to leverage the technology from the OPC Foundation and its collaborative partners to take advantage of the many opportunities for interoperability.
Ramifications of consumer electronics to industrial automation
There are many individuals and small companies that now have the opportunity to leverage consumer technology in a wide range of applications. Every month, at least 10,000 new applications are being developed and available for download for various consumer electronic smart devices.
A further complication is each of the smart device vendor platforms has its own infrastructure and development environment that is not necessarily compatible with competitive smart device platforms. Suppliers must invest to support multiple smart device platforms, creating increased cost of development and maintenance.
The continuing volume of applications has increased the complexity of finding and evaluating applications. Rating and references systems are basically the only methodologies consumers have to discover the applications that enable them to be more productive. The cost for many of the applications is free or such a nominal fee that the perception is there is nothing to lose by trying an application. Consumers appear to have lower reliability and performance expectations for these applications. They might want secure reliable interoperability but have come to expect with the high-volume number of products in the marketplace and the low cost of ownership that reliability and performance can only be a bonus, at best.
Multiple embedded device vendors in the consumer market are competing for market share. The complication with multiple consumer electronics device vendor offerings is platforms are not designed to address interoperability and reliability across devices. Applications are rolling out with developers relying on making money through a “try before I buy” mentality and relying on high-volume distribution channels. They need to focus on bringing products quickly to market; consequently, they seem to be taking shortcuts that sacrifice reliability, interoperability, and security. There is also a lack of real certification to validate quality beyond virus detection.
Application of consumer electronics to industrial automation
Technical innovations in consumer electronics are driving expectations for multivendor, multiplatform interoperability that is absolutely required for industrial automation. However, how do these innovations and technologies address issues regarding reliability and security? What is the impact on the end user’s bottom line? How do they help to increase revenues and lower costs?
Although the importance of consumer electronics and the technical innovations cannot be underestimated, the reality of industrial automation is there are an overwhelming number of technical innovations, so many disparate/disconnected platforms, different revenue models, and much higher expectations of security and reliability in comparison to consumer electronics.
The challenge is to learn from the technical innovations being applied in consumer electronics and standardize, leverage, and adapt many of these innovations for industrial automation and other domains. Using these technical innovations for industrial automation can be effective by adding the level of security, reliability, performance, and interoperability that will be certified for robust industrial automation systems.
The technical innovations adopted into industrial automation products and services must be certified for security reliability and interoperability. We also must make sure the technical innovations not only provide the WOW factor, but the technical innovations of today and tomorrow must be tailored to the demands of the industrial environment.
Systems in industrial automation have a much longer lifespan than consumer products and require a strategy for backward interoperability when deploying new technical innovations. For example, the WOW factor of using a smart cell phone to receive and acknowledge alarms directly from the industrial environment is exciting, but industrial automation requirements demand information reliability to ensure the alarm is actually received at the smart cell phone and redundancy is put in place in the event the alarm is not seen in the phone in a timely fashion.
The OPC Foundation has been watching many of the industry-standard organizations in consumer electronics, industrial automation, financial, retail, building automation, security, and the smart grid. Potentially, there is a great deal of synergy, and the majority of the respective industry-standard organizations are trying to learn from each other.
The OPC Foundation has been focused on collaborating with many of the other industry-standard organizations. The OPC Foundation began developing the OPC UA platform in 2004, which is focused on providing a complete infrastructure for secure reliable platform independence. The intention of the OPC UA is the various other industry-standard organizations information models would be able to use the services of OPC UA to provide a complete solution for deterministic interoperability.
Many of the great technical innovations deployed in the embedded market have been designed into the OPC UA. There are a number of vendors building toolkits supporting the OPC UA deployment into embedded devices. Reliability, security, and performance are built into the OPC UA infrastructure.
Suppliers now have the ability to add many of the great technical innovations in a standard way directly into their products using OPC standards.
It is in the best interest of end users to motivate their suppliers to deliver products using OPC UA technology. Many of the suppliers have built their own proprietary architecture and really prefer their customers buy all products directly from them. They include great technical innovations to WOW their end-user community but fall short by building products tightly coupled to their proprietary platforms. When customers force vendors to open up their proprietary platforms and interoperate with other devices, the solution is often loosely coupled, cumbersome interfaces and gateways.
End users’ expectations from the consumer electronics world demands interoperability. Responsive suppliers adopting open interoperable standards are being rewarded by the marketplace. The days of buying from one supplier that provides a locked in solution are gone. Open interoperability enables end users to leverage the ideas and creativity of many vendors to make their manufacturing operations more competitive. The simplicity and ease of adding applications to a smart phone are proving this every day.
Information integration across domains
The compelling opportunity is to standardize and exchange information in a seamless efficient way that truly integrates information across domains. Clearly technical innovations provide the framework for better information integration between disparate system domains of today and tomorrow.
The OPC Foundation is collaborating with many organizations and consortiums in different domains outside of industrial automation to enable information integration across domains. OPC collaborates with those organizations actively committed to working with their suppliers adopting the technology and bringing real-world products into the marketplace.
Information sharing between domains is a real-world opportunity impacting operations to increase revenue, lower cost, increase quality, and time-to-market of products and services. Companies worldwide are leveraging information integration on a daily basis as a mechanism for increasing the bottom line.
OPC UA and device integration
The original design and architecture of the OPC classic specifications was built solely on Microsoft technology. Although the concept of leveraging the Microsoft operating system was the right architecture for interoperability in industrial automation at the time, it limited the scalability of the OPC technology for embedded devices. For a vendor to apply OPC in a device, it had to use the Microsoft operating system and Microsoft COM/DCOM platforms.
The importance of being able to support a multiplatform architecture and allow the functionality of OPC to be implemented in a device providing information integration and device-to-device communication was the specific focus of the architecture of OPC UA.
The trends in consumer electronics are all based on the multiplatform low-cost, high-performance embedded device strategy. Industrial automation and building automation leverage a wide range of embedded devices, and this trend is growing with consumer electronics production volumes driving the production of high-performance, low-cost processors incorporating communications.
OPC UA has been designed to address the needs for secure reliable information integration and interoperability with upstream devices by supporting the embedded devices without the burden of dependency of services being provided by the device platform.
OPC UA enterprise gateway
Modern factories need to be integrated with the enterprise systems, which are often spread across many physical locations. Enterprise Service Buses (ESBs) are a common way to provide this connectivity; however, there are no standards for accessing an ESB, which means custom system integration work is necessary before an industrial automation application can communicate with a particular ESB. OPC UA servers bridge this gap from the enterprise to automation devices. A sophisticated OPC UA gateway could even support the business process orchestration tools provided by the ESB vendor, which would further streamline the process of integrating the factory with the enterprise.
The main advantages are:
- Reduced cost of integration of OPC applications with the enterprise
- No dependency on specific ESBs
- A single web service API, which can replace many custom web services
- Information integration at its finest, beginning the cross-pollination of providing information across multiple domains
Secure, reliable interoperability
Industrial automation requires a high degree of secure, reliable interoperability that far exceeds the expectations of the consumer electronics industry. Consequently, much attention was given to the design details of OPC UA to be secure and at the same time provide a highly scalable architecture to meet and exceed the demands of industrial automation. Industry standards and focusing on the necessary infrastructure services to provide a solid baseline for secure, reliable interoperability in a multiplatform environment are mandatory. Collaboration with information providers for the embedded device market as well as other consortiums provides the necessary information integration services on top of the infrastructure for communication.
Consortiums and vendors are working together in the interest of developing information modeling companion specifications to plug-in to this OPC UA information concept. End users must make sure their vendors are developing and deploying products in order to take advantage of the rich set of information from the embedded devices and be able to use this information in generic applications. This type of concept does model closely the world of consumer electronics where users can plug into a device to discover available information and use it directly.
The OPC foundation has a program where products must be certified for conformance and interoperability. The majority of the consumer electronics industry seems to be plagued with high levels of complexity for configuration and high degrees of unreliability. End users may tolerate flaws in consumer electronics because their expectations are lower based on the cost of ownership of these products. Failures of products and systems in industrial automation cannot be tolerated. A much more robust design and testing environment must be put in place for products that are developed for industrial automation systems.
The OPC Foundation has modeled a certification program based on the industrial Ethernet organizations. Suppliers must certify their products through the OPC Foundation certification lab. End users must motivate their suppliers to make sure the products they are buying are certified and have been tested by the OPC Foundation.
The world is drastically changing with respect to the number of technical innovations being distributed and available on a daily basis. End users and suppliers need to be conscious and aware of the many technical innovations that can actually facilitate increasing revenue, lowering costs, increasing quality of products being developed, increasing productivity, and providing the right information at the right time.
Innovations must be evaluated on the merits of the technology with a complete business case analysis on the value proposition for the life cycle of the potential technical innovations that would be implemented into the corresponding products and systems.
It is in the best interest of end users to mandate that suppliers deliver products certified to appropriate open, interoperable, industry standards for reliable operation in systems.
The OPC Foundation has been well positioned in its development of the OPC UA to provide the infrastructure for secure reliable interoperability for moving data and information from the embedded devices to the cloud. It has been working with many of the consortiums to standardize on the corresponding information models such that OPC becomes the generic communication mechanism for the corresponding information modeling activities.
I recommend you work with suppliers who deploy OPC UA as a solution and work with the OPC Foundation to ensure the products and systems you build today and tomorrow truly provide the highest degree of multivendor, multiplatform secure, reliable interoperability.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Thomas J. Burke (Thomas.Burke@opcfoundation.org) has been an officer for the OPC Foundation since the start of OPC, currently serving as president of the OPC Foundation (www.opcfoundation.org). He is a founding member of OPC and architect for the OPC Data Access Custom & Automation Interfaces.