OPC UA has become key technology for several next-gen automation standards
Published on : Sunday 01-08-2021
G Ganapathiraman, Vice President and General Manager, ARC Advisory Group, India.
The theme of connected plants has been promoted since long – decades even. It becomes an important topic in Industry 4.0 as well. So, what is new – in the concept and in implementation?
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.
When the pandemic struck in 2020, we saw the accelerated adoption of digital transformation strategies across organisations. End users had to become more competitive and deal with a changed work environment. Businesses have been restructured and new ways of collaborating and communicating have emerged. During the pandemic, work from home (WFH) became the norm, making remote connectivity and accessibility to plants and information essential.
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?
I would define a plant’s utopian goal as aiming for operational excellence. 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!
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?
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.
Automation end users benefit from:
1. A vast ecosystem working for greater interoperability
2. OPC UA as a single framework for secure interoperability and information exchange
3. Standardised information models and semantics via OPC UA Companion Specifications, and
4. The combination of Ethernet APL and OPC UA providing a common interoperability technology from cloud service providers all the way to process field devices.
In my opinion OPC UA’s platform-agnostic approach encourages innovation by removing all the barriers.
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. 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.
In this sense, OPC stands in stark contrast with industrial Ethernet and device network technologies, which were heavily promoted by industrial automation suppliers as a means of differentiating their own products and solutions. In the world of industrial Ethernet, a handful of networking and interoperability technologies evolved but each of these was dominated by a major automation supplier. The organisations that promoted and developed these technologies were likewise dominated by a single supplier, who provided most of the funding and technical support for the effort. Because of this, such organisations provided little opportunity for major competitors to collaborate on interoperability.
In contrast, all the major automation suppliers have supported OPC UA. As the Industrial IoT emerged and cloud computing began to be concerned with industrial assets, many software suppliers realised that OPC UA was an interoperability technology with widespread support and so IT suppliers began to include OPC UA in their products. Over time, OPC UA and the OPC Foundation that develops and supports it have become the broadest interoperability organisation in the industrial automation space, addressing both factory and process automation.
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?
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. Whether developed by a formal standards development organisation (e.g., IEC, ISO, etc.), or by an industry consortium, the standards produced are almost certain to be of higher quality and have broader acceptance if they include input from a broad spectrum of stakeholder groups. Better and more robust solutions are ultimately the most important benefit to the end user.
For many control system end users, migration represents a significant step change to warrant a complete review of all the supplier offerings in the marketplace. ARC advocates that you take the same approach to control system migration that you would to overall control system selection, all in the context of a six-sigma style continuous improvement process. Solution providers are now integrating older machines into new networks in a phased manner. In a phased migration, only those components that need to be replaced are upgraded, so a ‘total rip and replace’ approach and its attendant cost is avoided.
A connected plant offers advantages of efficiency. Does it also become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which become more sophisticated by the day?
A natural fallout of increased connectivity is exposure and vulnerability to cyberattacks. Sophisticated attacks on manufacturers and critical infrastructure operators are increasing at an alarming rate. Yesterday, most industrial companies only needed to protect operations from general malware floating around the internet. Today, companies need to be concerned about targeted attacks by sophisticated adversaries and compromised software downloads from suppliers. External connections and cloud apps have expanded the pathways for attackers to access critical OT systems. Insecure-by-design IoT devices are providing launch pads for internal system attacks. Mobile devices with unauthorised apps are exfiltrating confidential information and injecting malware into business workflows.
Trying to deal with each of these security issues on an individual basis is a fool’s errand. Rapid detection and response to anomalous behaviours is essential to block such attacks before they wreak serious operational impacts. Companies also need comprehensive, resilient security strategies that can keep up with the digital transformation demands of business leaders.
Raman is responsible for managing ARC Advisory Group's operations in India. Raman's range of responsibilities at ARC includes supporting the global offices in preparation of market research reports (worldwide, regional, and India specific), organising ARC India and Asia forums, and sales/technical promotion in the areas of automation and enterprise. He handles and nurtures analyst relationships with domestic and global clients. Additionally, he collaborates with industry organisations, such as NASSCOM, CII, ISA, and others, as well as with the media. Prior to joining ARC he superannuated as Executive Director of Electronics Division (EDN) of BHEL.