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Schneider backs OPC Foundation unified-comms for IIoT

Industrial and utility equipment and automation specialist Schneider Electric is one of the first companies to come out swinging for the OPC Foundation’s new unified communications specification. Designed to ensure that Industrial IoT (IIoT) equipment can work in close cooperation, the new architecture is looking to better integrate Operational Technology (OT) and Information Technology (IT) – two worlds have historically remained quite separate.

The IT-OT divide is closing, as more companies adopt IoT technologies in their operations, which require integrations with their own IT systems, and likely those of customers and partners. The OPCF is focused on standardizing the ways that different vendors’ IT and OT systems can communicate, in an interoperable fashion, with a particular focus on automation and control systems. It has gained traction in automotive, food, oil and gas, utilities, and building automation.

Many IoT applications can be integrated at the cloud layer, once the associated data has been collected, sorted, backhauled, and then exposed via API. Once all the data is in a cloud, it can be manhandled by engineers, and coded into compliance. At this point, you can ship data between clouds as needed, even if there’s an overhead in latency and efficiency due to the translation required.

However, at the field level, the devices that you want to interact likely won’t have enough time to tolerate such a edge-to-cloud-to-edge trip. Industrial machinery that needs to collaborate with other machines might have pretty tight tolerances, and so a robotic picker needs to be able to instantly be told not to drop an item into a loader or processor if a problem has arisen.

Manufacturing lines, power plants, and warehouses, are all areas where such automation could provide big improvements in efficiency, but are all environments where a lack of interoperability could cause massive headaches and backlogs if something were to go wrong. This is where the OPCF hopes to come in handy.

The OPCF was founded back in 1996, and now has over 600 members. Its president, Stefan Hoppe, says that “the benefit of membership in the OPC Foundation allows companies to actively engage and influence the direction of the OPC Foundation and includes early access to the specifications and technology. This initiative will grow OPC UA into new markets.”

The specification at the heart of the project is the OPC UA – the Open Platform Communication Unified Architecture. The OPCF is very proud of its UA, which it says offers new levels of performance and certified interoperability between industrial machinery, cloud applications, and mobile devices.

The UA was released back in 2006, with version 1.02 appearing in 2013. It stems from a task force established by automation vendors Fisher-Rosemount, Intellution, Opto 22, and Rockwell Software, who wanted to standardized data access protocols in an industry that had consolidated around Microsoft’s COM and DCOM software. To this end, the Object Linking and Embedding (OLE) for Process Control (OPC) specification was thus released in 1996, and eventually evolved into the UA. A history of the OPCF is available here.

The OCPF says that the UA and its Time Sensitive Networking (TSN) subset creates a foundational platform for fully secure systems, ‘delivering a new single set of end-to-end natively secure communication profiles for industrial control, safety, and motion, built on real-time Ethernet, to drive automation in factory, plant, and process environments.’

The TSN element builds on the UA, but is more focused on the field-level equipment and systems – where time-synchronization is most important. To this end, the OPCF has announced its new initiative, where it will be identifying UA and TSN opportunities and needs.

In its own words, “the goal of this initiative is to deliver an open, cohesive approach to implement OPC UA and TSN and associated application profiles. This will advance the OPC Foundation providing vendor independent end-to-end interoperability into field devices for all relevant industry automation use-cases. The OPC Foundation vision of becoming the worldwide industrial interoperability standard is advanced by integrating field devices and the shop floor.

Consequently, the standards organization is launching a new set of working groups, focused on industrial automation. These will harmonize and standardize application profiles (things like motion and safety controls); standardize the OPC UA information models for the field devices; map these application profiles, with regard to the TSN requirements; and define the certification procedures.

The working groups are apparently going to be aligning themselves with the IEEE 60802 standardization group, which will be standardizing the TSN elements. The OPCF says this is to ensure that a single converged TSN approach, the IEEE 60802 spec, can be used as a common multi-vendor network infrastructure – so that it can be shared among applications.

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