A good level of standardisation is a must to use OPC UA effectively A fully connected plant is not a utopian goal
Published on : Sunday 01-08-2021
Javed Ahmad, Sr. Vice President, Global Supply Chain-India, Middle East, Africa, East Asia, Japan, Pacific & South America.
The theme of connected plants has been promoted for long – decades even. It becomes an important topic in Industry 4.0 as well. So what is new – in the concept and in implementation?
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. We have around 70 Smart factories and 3 of them have been also recognised by the World Economic Forum as Lighthouse factories. We are also providing the right knowledge and competencies to our managers, engineers, staff, and operators with timely training processes. We will continue to innovate and be agile both internally and externally as we leverage our EcoStruxure solution that is IoT enabled, plug and play, and open architecture and platform.
With our new program titled: STRIVE (Sustainable, Trusted, Resilient, Intelligent, Velocity and Efficiency), we are focusing on a renewed intelligent supply chain. This builds on the foundation of connected plants. We are deploying solutions which make the connected plants interconnected to the end to end value chain. With real time and historic data in a single data lake, we can apply AI/ML and simulation on the digital twin of plant to take intelligent and automated decisions.
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?
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. 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.
EcoStruxure for Industry provides:
- Optimisation of investment costs by 50%
- Increase in Time to reach the market by 20%
- Enhancing productivity by 50%.
It is a journey for a plant to achieve fully connected, digitised operations with a high level of automation. With a clear framework, standard solutions, agile mind-set, and digital expertise a plant can become fully connected. As the technology landscape and business models evolve there must be a continuous evolution and innovation from plants to leverage emerging technologies and reap business benefits.
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?
For customers, it doesn’t matter when the solution they buy is coming from Schneider Electric as a single product or as a collection of products. They want to be assured that the solution has a stamp of approval as being interoperable, so they can incorporate it into their environment with confidence that it will interoperate with their existing solutions, or build it out as they see fit.
At Schneider Electric EcoStruxure OPC UA Server Expert, a state-of-the-art communications platform that seamlessly links with Schneider Electric PLCs and connected devices to enterprise information systems and IIoT through the OPC Foundation’s OPC UA standard. The OPC UA standard follows object-oriented, information modelling mechanisms but is technologically sector-neutral. OPC UA runs on all operating systems and can be implemented in all languages. The current communications stacks are available in Ansi C/C++, Net, and Java. To secure transfer and authentication at user and application levels, OPC UA provides mechanisms for application and user authentication. OPC UA is widely used in embedded field devices such as RFID readers, protocol converters, etc., and in virtually all controllers, SCADA/HMI products, and MES/ERP systems. OPC UA is an IEC standard and is suited for partnerships with any organisation.
The key benefits of OPC UA are:
a. Able to connect with workers to determine issues and improve decision making
b. Able to gain real-time insight into processes to increase the financial performance
c. Help efficient operation and maintaining of the investment assets
d. Ensure safety systems and processes are connected well to secure people and the environment, and
e. Adding value to privacy, discretion, and data integrity increases business continuity.
OPC UA is more than a communication protocol. It provides a multi-layered architecture like Information/Meta Model. With that you can join a Standard Data Model that is crucial to have meaningful data and not just to receive data without label.
With all its benefits, OPC UA is also a sophisticated protocol, so it requires more training to master it and it might consume more network bandwidth. But it will be compensated by all the advantages that OPC UA brings us. So, the main question is how are you going to use OPC UA? If you use OPC UA without using the data model or other specific features, it's like using a Swiss knife just for the spoon. In this case, it is better to use another standard IoT protocol such as MQTT which is lightweight and very easy to use.
A critical point is the link with the level of non-OPC UA compatible assets in your company. To be powerful, you must use OPC UA as standard protocol and transport protocol. So, this will give a lot of constraint with legacy devices.
To use OPC UA effectively, you need to have a good level of standardisation in your data management and good data governance to maintain the asset data model. It's a new mind-set to have, if your organisation isn't mature enough, you will find that the OPC UA isn't flexible enough.
In the future, when all the sensors, PLCs, machines, servers, clients, applications, and other systems are compatible with OPC UA, the disadvantages will disappear because it will be easy to use.
OPC UA to have 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?
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. For example, the OPC UA for client-server communication uses an optimised TCP-based binary protocol for data exchange over the IANA registered port. For any cloud-based communications, OPC UA uses protocols like TSN for deterministic communications. In terms of web sockets that may be also used to support browser-based OPC UA clients, QUIC can be integrated easily without breaking existing functionality.
How much is the contribution from the 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?
Our customers are interested in interoperability because it is a buzzword in the world of IoT with very promising profit. In addition, they want to be IoT ready, so being compatible with standard protocols such as MQTT or OPC UA becomes a reflex. More and more people in the industry include compatibility with OPC UA in the specification of machine requirements. As we explained before, to get the OPC UA full advantage, you must use it as standard, so legacy controllers are a big deal.
For our customer, we have defined two strategies to integrate older machines into the network:
1. For customers with a high level of maturity and with a clear desire to fully deploy OPC UA as standard, we offer a suite software solution that allows you to unify the old protocol:
- First you can create an asset data model in accordance with the OPC UA accompanying specifications. With that you will the capability to create asset model library
- Then you can convert your old machine protocol to OPC UA protocol. During that operation, all data will be mapped to the associated asset data model.
Thanks to our solution, our customers told us that they could create a new asset instance and connect it in 15 minutes with asset data in standardised format.
2. For customers who are not ready to use OPC UA as standard, we offer another strategy which allows you a high level of flexibility:
- A pre-packaged Edge solution, EcoStruxure Plant Data Expert, which gives you a high level of flexibility allowing you to use over 150 standard OT protocols to connect all existing controllers/machines which also include standard IoT protocols OPC UA and MQTT.
- Manage the asset data model in our EcoStruxure IIoT platform for the enterprise use case or in EcoStruxure Plant Data Expert for the factory use case. Our solution is flexible and allows you to manage the different levels of maturity within your different factories/customer factories.
So, you can collect data from any device and achieve the goal of having contextualised data with a single reference to map the collected data.
A connected plant offers advantages of efficiency. Does it also become more vulnerable to cyber-attacks, which become more sophisticated by the day?
Cybersecurity and data privacy are integral to Schneider Electric’s business strategy. It is also an essential pillar in our smart supply chain model. We have a holistic approach to integrating the cybersecurity strategy across Schneider Electric while leveraging EcoStruxure offerings. We are strongly focused on architecture covering IT/OT convergence (hardware and software) through strategic partnerships at a global and regional level. We ensure a centralised grievance and internal conformance process and are also implementing best practices of the same with support from the Schneider Digital organisation. At Schneider Electric we have also embedded cybersecurity sectors in our operations i.e., the creation of a network for supply chain cybersecurity referents. We are regularly doing assessments of the maturity level of every site, with clear action plans to reach the expected level of protection with improved coordination for threats identification, detection, and solution.
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 is in charge of Global Supply Chain (International) – India, Middle East Africa, East Asia, Japan, Pacific & South America regions for Schneider Electric. He has 27+ years of international experience in the electrical and electronics manufacturing industry. Javed has strong experience in end to end supply chain, transformation and managing complex operations across the globe. In the recent years he has deployed Industry 4.0, tailored supply chain processes, SMART factories, SMART logistics centres and digitisation to drive efficiencies, agility to make the supply chain ready for the future and to cater to varied needs of the customers.