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  • By Thomas J. Burke
  • System Integration
OPC: Interoperability standard for industrial automation
In today’s complex economy, information is the key to business success and profitability

By Thomas J. Burke

The OPC Foundation is working with consortia and standard development organizations to achieve the goals of superior production with digitalization. The year 2018 has been an interesting, record-breaking year, with end users, system integrators, and suppliers focused on maximizing their engineering investments and increasing productivity. End users are capitalizing on the data and information explosion. Consortia and standard development organizations (SDOs) are helping suppliers to exceed expectations.

Integration opportunity

Information integration requires standards organizations to work together for interoperability with synergistic opportunities to address convergence and to prevent overlapping complex information model architectures. The standards organizations have been working independently, and now it is time for them work to together to harmonize their data models with other standard organizations. The criteria for success for an SDO should be measured by the level of open interoperability provided.

When OPC UA was first conceived, it focused on developing a strategy for platform independence and a solution that allowed the operational technology (OT) and information technology (IT) worlds to communicate, have seamless interoperability, and be able to agree on syntactical and semantic data exchange formats.

The OPC Foundation started developing a service-oriented architecture, recognizing the opportunity to separate the services from the data. It consciously developed a rich, complex information model that allowed the OPC data to be modeled from the OPC classic specifications.

OPC Foundation

The mission of the OPC Foundation is to manage a global organization in which users, vendors, and consortia collaborate to create standards for multivendor, multiplatform, secure, and reliable information integration interoperability in industrial automation and beyond. To support this mission, the OPC Foundation creates and maintains specifications, ensures compliance with OPC specifications via certification testing, and collaborates with standards organizations.

OPC technologies were created to allow information to be easily and securely exchanged between diverse platforms from multiple vendors and to allow seamless integration of those platforms without costly, time-consuming software development. This frees engineering resources to do the more important work of running the business. Today, there are more than 4,200 suppliers who have created more than 35,000 different OPC products used in more than 17 million applications. The estimate of the savings in engineering resources alone is in the billions of dollars. The OPC Foundation strategy is:

  • rules for OPC UA Companion Specifications developed together with partners
  • predefined process for joint OPC UA companion specifications
  • templates to ensure standardized format and potential certifications
  • compliance
  • intellectual property
  • working processes

The OPC Foundation is focused on evangelizing the OPC UA information framework and collaborating with standards organizations and consortia to incorporate data models that reflect the knowledge of their subject-matter experts.

Information models

OPC UA, beyond being a secure, interoperable standard for moving data and information from the embedded world to the cloud, is an open architecture for a wide range of application information models that add meaning and context to data. Information modeling allows organizations to plug their complex information models into OPC UA. This brings information integration and interoperability across disparate devices and applications. Using the common OPC UA framework was a way for all standards organizations to seamlessly connect their data between the IT and OT worlds. This greatly simplifies the end user's task of digitalization.

Service-oriented collaborative architecture

The OPC Foundation collaboration across many organizations is a very important part of the OPC UA service-oriented architecture that lets other organizations model their data and have it seamlessly and securely connected. The concept is simple. An organization develops its data model, mapping it to an OPC UA information model. Vendors can build a server that publishes information, providing the appropriate context, syntax, and semantics. Client applications or subscribers can discover and understand the syntax and semantics of the data model from the respective organizations. An OPC UA server is a data engine that gathers information and presents it in ways that are useful to various types of OPC UA client devices. Devices could be located on the factory floor, like a human-machine interface, proprietary control program, historian database, dashboard, or sophisticated analytics program that might be in an enterprise server or in the cloud.

The initial collaboration that the OPC Foundation engaged with was called OpenO&M, which was a cooperation between OPC Foundation, MIMOSA, ISA95, and OAGIS. This first collaboration resulted in several OPC UA companion specifications that were focused at the IT world and integration with the factory floor. The graphic shows the logos of the numerous standards organizations that the OPC Foundation has partnered with. These specifications allow generic applications to connect to different devices and applications to discover and consume the data and information.

Fast forward to late 2018, and the OPC Foundation has now partnered with more than 40 different standards organizations. These organizations include every major fieldbus organization, robotics, machine tools, pharmaceutical, industrial kitchens, oil and gas, water treatment, manufacturing, automotive, building automation, and more. All of these organizations are now developing or have already released OPC UA companion specifications, and these organizations can take advantage of the service-oriented architecture of OPC UA.

Some of the more important consortia that are predominantly end-user driven include the oil and gas industry, pharmaceutical NAMUR, and VDMA (the Mechanical Engineering Industry Association). There is also a lot of energy being "energized" in the energy industry (no pun intended). There are exciting trade shows in the machine tool industry and the packaging industry. Significantly, suppliers and end users are realizing the volume of data from all the devices and applications that needs to be turned into useful information.

One of the most exciting organizations that the OPC foundation has collaborated with is VDMA, representing more than 3,200 companies in the subject-matter-expert dominated mechanical and systems engineering industry in Germany and the rest of Europe. It represents the breadth of the manufacturing industry developing and leveraging standards across multiple industries.

The OPC Foundation activities include collaborations with a number of industries and applications, including automotive, building automation, energy, oil and gas, robotics, welding, pharmaceutical serialization, transportation, machine tools, product life-cycle management.


Governments and regulatory agencies are now becoming actively engaged in the standard-setting process. Industrie 4.0 started in Germany and has spawned a number of regional equivalents throughout the world that are accelerating standards development and adoption for complete system-wide interoperability. Examples include Industry 4.0 concepts being adopted in countries with various initiatives that include Made in China 2025, Japan Industrial Value Chain Initiative (IVI), Make in India, and Indonesia 4.0. Clearly there is a future for the holistic automation, business information, and manufacturing execution architecture to improve industry with the integration of all aspects of production and commerce across company boundaries for greater efficiency.

A lot is happening in the world of open standards. The OPC Foundation is tightly engaged in collaboration with a multitude of organizations and is reaching across to other verticals beyond the domain of industrial automation.

Vertical integration

The whole concept of IT and OT convergence is very important to the suppliers and even more important to the end users, because they want a strategy and a vertical integration from the plant floor (sometimes called the shop floor) to the top floor or enterprise. What is most important in this equation of vertical integration of data from the plant floor's variety of field devices can be consumed and then turned into useful information as it goes up the food chain to the enterprise. Essentially, data becomes information as it is converted in the different layers of the vertical integration architecture.

Integration is bidirectional between sensors and controllers and the enterprise/cloud, communicating all types of information, including control parameters, set points, operating parameters, real-time sensor data, asset information, real-time tracking, and device configurations. This architecture creates the basis for digitalization with intelligent command-and-control to improve productivity, drive make-to-order manufacturing, improve customer responsiveness, and achieve agile manufacturing and profits.

OPC collaboration process

The OPC Foundation strategy is pretty simple. It has an established set of processes, so organizations can work together to develop OPC UA companion specifications complete with templates for the standardized format of the data to be understood and consumed generically. It establishes working groups and protects the intellectual property. All of the companion specifications become open standards to facilitate the whole vision of success measured by the level of adoption of the technology.

The OPC Foundation also has the certification program, which allows the companion specifications to be certified for interoperability.


The industrial and process manufacturing industries have realized they can improve production by using data to gain insights and to optimize. This is leading to the movement toward digital manufacturing, which is the topic of many new conferences all over the world on big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), IoT, cloud computing, edge computing, and the fog. End users and suppliers are overwhelmed with all these new innovations and are sorting out what makes sense to leverage from a business value perspective to maximize their effectiveness in daily production operations. Collaboration between the OPC Foundation and a wide range of other industry organizations is bringing clarity.

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About The Authors

Thomas J. Burke is the OPC Foundation president and executive director. Burke has a BS in theoretical mathematics from John Carroll University and an MS in computer engineering from the University of Dayton. For the majority of his career, he has developed hardware, software, and firmware for industrial automation, mostly at Rockwell Automation. Burke is the founding father of the OPC Foundation (started in 1995) and has spearheaded the vision of OPC for multivendor, multiplatform, secure, and reliable information integration interoperability.