Connected Plants and Communication Protocols
Published on : Sunday 01-08-2021
Experts debate on the multiplicity of protocols and the efforts to find a level of standardisation in the automation industry.
Connected Plants is a term often used to describe the rapid evolution of automation with the help of emerging technologies in the post internet era. The theme of connected plants has been promoted since long, but has assumed importance in the Industry 4.0 era. So what is new in the concept, and in implementation?
“The possibilities with the latest developments enable a connected plant for all business sizes, due to the fact that standard protocols are now integrated into almost any modern device. But it is still an engineering effort. Because no standard semantic was available. On the technical side, what is new is that interoperable communication is possible across various levels, from pure OT to MES to the cloud – proprietary protocols at the various levels are being replaced. At the same time, IT networking also creates higher requirements for IT security, which OPC UA also covers,” says Andreas Faath, Head of Industrial Interoperability, VDMA. “Equally new is the wide use of OPC UA companion specifications. They enable machine and component suppliers to set up an interface which is semantically interoperable. Which means that all machines of the same type, like a machine tool, an injection moulding machine or a weighing scale have the same interface for its OPC UA server. This enables a faster integration into the shop floor IT systems and not yet another engineering project per machine,” he adds.
“Manufacturers have long known that connected plants enhance efficiency and productivity. Companies began adopting new technologies and joined the digital bandwagon. However, each company progressed at its own pace and the early adopters realised the benefits. The laggards were resistant to change from their usual practices and ways of doing things. But this was in the past. Now the very concept of connectivity and implementation has changed radically. It is not just about the connected plant; it is about a connected workforce, supply chain and the entire ecosystem,” says G Ganapathiraman, Vice President and General Manager, ARC Advisory Group, India.
Javed Ahmad, Sr. Vice President, Global Supply Chain-India, Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Japan, Pacific & South America, Schneider Electric, is of the view that a digitally connected infrastructure is an imperative today for business sustenance and growth. It allows the integration of IT technologies with products, and services across the complete value chain which spans entire product and service life cycles. Industry 4.0 is motivated by information and communications technologies that are increasing the widespread use of industrial automation. “With Schneider Electric’s TSC 4.0 Transformation, i.e., Tailored, Sustainable and Connected 4.0, we have created a tremendously active sustainable and connected journey that integrates the Smart Factory initiative through TSC 4.0. Our tailored supply chain journey has seen several penetrations to customer-centricity, cash efficiency while delivering improved performance on productivity,” says Javed Ahmad.
“The concept of connected and autonomous manufacturing plants has been a human dream for many years now. Over the past 5 years, rapidly emerging concepts in self-reporting, self-performing equipment have fuelled the imagination of plant operators and technology providers worldwide. Connected plants simply put are plants with real-time visibility, providing insights into plant operations, and when leveraged to its full potential, will provide predictive capability and autonomous operation,” stresses Rajmohan N, Digital Head for ABB Process Industries in South Asia, Middle East and Africa. “A connected plant in the digital world is attainable through connectivity to assets, machines and control systems, and by leveraging digital technologies such as Big Data, cloud, mobility, API-based integration, micro services, and artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms. These algorithms can give rise to a ‘Cognitive Plant’. The cognitive plant uses an intelligent self-learning system that can build a model based on data from multiple sensors online. These systems will continue to learn and expand the scope of batch and continuous processing models,” he adds.
A realistic vision
A fully connected plant seems utopian. What is a realistic vision that plant managers should aim for? And why should it be short of the utopian goal? “In my view, digitisation should always be seen with the corresponding added value behind it. Of course, there is huge added value in what you describe as 'utopian fully connected plants’. But even on the way there, plant managers should set themselves small goals, analyse their processes, and develop specific areas where data is needed to improve processes. I think, for example, the OPC UA for Machinery specification provides basic information, such as the availability of machines, which allows KPI calculations or also allows weak points in the process to be identified. Use cases like these are the cornerstones of digitisation and bring us closer to the ‘fully connected plant’,” says Andreas Faath.
“I would define a plant’s utopian goal as aiming for operational excellence,” asserts Ganapathiraman. “On the digital transformation journey, operational excellence is what manufacturers strive for. But this is a moving target – as we improve and go further ahead, our goal shifts higher. A realistic vision would be to have an OpX roadmap that considers the customer needs and business environment. These, of course, can and will change over time, with the Covid-19 pandemic and major supply chain interruptions being recent examples of business disruptions. To meet these changing needs, the OpX goals will also invariably change to respond and adapt over time. It's always good to aim for the stars but have a Plan B in place and be prepared to hit the ground!”
Javed Ahmad has a different view and feels a fully connected plant is not a utopian goal. “With Schneider Electric’s EcoStruxure plant and machine architectures along with the digital services and AVEVA software, one can have a realistic vision by opening up new business opportunities for plant and machine builders,” he says. According to him, this not only increases the business productivity and profitability but also fosters in building the industries of the future with innovative solutions that deliver the openness, flexibility, and unparalleled connectivity required for safe and sustainable operations.
To Rajmohan N, a more realistic vision for a connected plant or Industry 4.0 should not revolve around smarter machines, but smarter analytics from the existing machines. “It is all about how the plants leverage the true power of data to transform industrial operational excellence. Today to succeed, Industry 4.0 principles and techniques are key. How we use artificial intelligence and machine learning; and how we truly maximise the power of analytics is the true secret to getting ingrained, completely, into the Industry 4.0 era,” he says.
Adding the user industry perspective, Dr Marcio Wagner da Silva, Process Engineer & Project Manager, Crude Oil Refining Industry, feels an efficient plant is one that complies with the production plan without giveaways in a safe manner, with minimum energy consumption and minimum environmental impact. “I believe that the plant managers need to look for a level of connectivity capable to ensure these requirements and no more beyond this. It's important to remember that there is a trade-off between connectivity and cyber threats, especially in high risk business like Oil & Gas process plants; furthermore, some situations need human interference in decision making and a totally connected plant can be a threat to the process safety according to the risk scenario,” says Dr Marcio.
Advantage OPC UA
Connectivity protocols are a central topic for total interoperability, and today OPC UA appears to be dominating this space. What are the pros and cons of OPC UA, and would it hinder further innovation?
According to Andreas Faath, OPC UA is not a protocol, it is a communication stack allowing you to use current state-of-the-are transport and security protocols. Therefore, innovation in the IT world is quickly transferred to the OPC UA stack. “Take the current activities around Ethernet-APL and TSN networks. One can already use these protocols to ensure ‘real-time’ communication. The field level communication activities are in place, that OPC UA for FX could in the future be an open replacement for today's proprietary fieldbus protocols. Particularly noteworthy is the advantage that OPC UA created in the world's largest system of partners for the standardisation of data,” he opines, and adds, “There are certainly proprietary protocols – stand-alone solutions – that are less complex and therefore easier to implement. However, this does not offer the possibilities of OPC UA, such as the encapsulation of transport across different enterprise levels.”
Ganapathiraman is of the view that OPC UA has become the key technology for several next-generation automation standards, including Industry 4.0, NAMUR NOA, the Open Process Automation Forum, and Ethernet APL (which represents the next generation of process field-level communications). OPC UA thus is extending to become a harmonised process and factory automation interoperability solution, including safety, motion, and real-time. “In my opinion OPC UA’s platform-agnostic approach encourages innovation by removing all the barriers,” says Ganapathiraman.
“Building on the success of OPC, OPC UA was designed to enhance and surpass the capabilities of the OPC specifications. OPC UA eased out communication among different systems and communication with the Cloud. It is highly scalable and easy to maintain. Though it is secure by design, we need to take care of minimum cybersecurity requirements to protect the systems,” says Rajmohan N. “There is scope to improve further on security, expanding the data types and cloud providers that support OPC UA, support of direct conversion from earlier industry protocols, and Integration with heritage systems that are proprietary protocol-centric designs. The latest innovative technologies, surely, can bring more flexibility and security to OPA UA.”
Dr Marcio opines that a standard in the connectivity protocols can lead to cost reductions and make the maintenance interventions easier, leading to lower operating down times. On the other hand, a standard can expose the process plants to cyber-attacks and create a block to innovative protocols once the fabricants and users tends to reject a new protocol due to incompatibility with the ‘standard’ or impossibility of interchangeability between fabricants, which tends to raise the maintenance and capital costs.
OPC UA too has some competition. How viable are the contenders like Open Group or Universal Automation? Would these alternatives form new islands or would they efficiently communicate with each other?
“Competition exists in every field, but OPC UA has risen above the competition. There are several reasons behind the recent success and growth of OPC UA. These factors contribute in an important way to the unique market position of OPC UA today,” says Ganapathiraman. “OPC originated as a technology that made it the ‘second language’ of industrial devices, whose primary language was an industrial Ethernet or device network protocol. No major automation supplier promoted OPC as its primary interoperability strategy. Rather, OPC was a product requirement (but not a product differentiator) for the major automation suppliers.”
“All relevant automation suppliers contribute to the OPC community to foster the dissemination of this technology and to ensure smooth communication. Similarly, other standards such as MTP, MDIS and others have chosen OPC UA as their base,” informs Andreas Faath.
According to Javed Ahmad, OPC UA can be aggregated into engineering and semantic extension. The OPC is currently partnered with PLCopem, MDIS, FDI, AIM, VDMA, MTConnect, AutomationML and continues to expand its collaboration activities with other sectors and industries. “These groups work efficiently and ensure timely meetings to mitigate risks to enhance product optimisation and business growth. These groups meet weekly to discuss test procedures, interoperability tests, and Compliance tests and ensure the vision of the initiative is to strive for an open, uniform, secure, and standards-based IIoT communication solution between sensors, actuators, controllers, and the cloud that meets all the requirements of industrial automation,” he asserts.
How much is the contribution from user-industry towards standard, open protocols for interoperability? A major issue is of course legacy controllers. What is the strategy to integrate older machines into new networks?
Dr Marcio is of the view that the participation of the end users is fundamental to any innovation and development effort, and it is no different in the automation industry. The feedback about the new technologies and improvement points is the driving force for the success. “In my point of view, the strategy to integrate older operating systems with the new networks passes through a critical analysis of the process, in the sense to identify what are the key equipment and process steps. This adds more value and security to the overall operation and one can then proceed with a deep study of modernisation and integration with new systems, aiming to ensure a high efficiency process plant with low capital spending,” he stresses.
“In the cooperation of VDMA and OPC Foundation, many suppliers as well as end users contribute to the development. In the largest ecosystem of standardisation, end users provide valuable feedback to the development of companion specifications, which addresses their needs. Their feedback is needed to develop the technology and the open specifications to pave the way to the ‘fully connected plant’,” says Andreas Faath. “In my opinion, end users and solution providers contribute equally towards developing standards and open protocols for interoperability. Understanding the end user’s pain points, the solution provider develops tools and processes. End user contributors can also benefit from being exposed to a broader range of use cases for benchmarking and planning purposes,” adds Ganapathiraman.
A connected plant offers advantages of efficiency. Does it also become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which become more sophisticated by the day?
“With all the benefits of connected plants there is also a responsibility to fully protect the digital infrastructure. With the convergence of IT and OT networks, there is a need to restrict the network traffic, continuously patch both IT and OT systems and implement network and endpoint protection solutions. In Schneider Electric we have a mandate to not connect any solution which is not assessed and certified by the cybersecurity team. We also have a cybersecurity organisation of plant representatives, security operations, IT and OT teams to continuously improve cybersecurity posture, Javed Ahmad.
“Previously the industrial environment was mainly an isolated network, with the control systems integrated with various hardware and software. Now, the industrial system architecture has evolved with collaborative mechanisms that have been integrated. As the degree of connectivity increases, it is imperative to implement an in-depth cybersecurity strategy,” says Rajmohan N. “The cybersecurity threat has matured significantly, and we see a huge increase in the volume and the types of high-quality malware that have been developed. The cybercriminals are also approaching the attack with a business mind-set and are creating a well-planned process to choose their targets.” Rajmohan is of the opinion that building and implementing an advanced cybersecurity strategy with advanced threat detection and protection that can mitigate such risks. Companies, like ABB, with vast OT experience and a proven track record of cyber-attack resilience, can help to define and implement these strategies in a pragmatic manner.
“Despite all the benefits of the technology developments, unfortunately, the technological development has a dark side, the malware has been increasingly sophisticated and harder to eliminate and to prevent,” says Dr Marcio. Cyber-attacks are a real threat and can't be despised by the energy industry. Some references relate that the energy industry was the second preferred target of cybercriminals in the recent years, and it is becoming a great concern for the energy industry, mainly for the oil & gas production chain, and the companies have included cyber-attacks as a major risk. The autonomous systems, like drones and connected devices that have benefited from the IoT (Internet of Things) technologies are the main concerns regarding the risks of cyber-attacks. “Despite the new threats, technology development and digital transformation in the downstream industry offers alternatives to keep under control the risks, allowing the players to enjoy the benefits of the connectivity to enlarge their competitiveness in the market,” concludes Dr Marcio.
(Note: The responses of various experts featured in this story are their personal views and not necessarily of the companies or organisations they represent. The full interviews are hosted online at https://www.iedcommunications.com/interviews)