Uniting Industrial Communications with Open Standards
Over the years, few things have changed as much as manufacturing. Today, factory machines and industrial devices are constantly communicating, connecting to the internet, and exchanging massive amounts of data.
But while increased machine interactions are a transformative element of Industry 4.0, they’ve also opened the door to multiple challenges—including disparate devices hindering data transfer and a rising number of security threats.
In this podcast, we discuss attempts to reduce complexities associated with smart factories, specifically blending of IT and OT technology into a single network spanning wired and wireless technologies. We also take a closeup look at open industrial interoperability standards from the OPC Foundation, and examine how these efforts are establishing themselves as the future of the industry by enabling manufacturers to simply and securely “connect anything to anything.”
Our Guest: ABB, B+R, Intel®, and OPC Foundation
Our guests in this episode are:
- Bernhard Eschermann, CTO of Process Automation at ABB, an industrial digitalization leader
- Stefan Schönegger, Vice President of Product Management at B&R Automation, a member of the ABB group
- David McCall, Senior Director of Industrial and Consumer IoT Standards at Intel®
- Peter Lutz, Director of Field Level Communications at the OPC Foundation
Bernhard, Stefan, David, and Peter answer our questions about:
- (4:20) Biggest challenges on the factory floor
- (6:44) Overcoming industrial device communication complexities
- (9:20) The pros and cons of today’s digital technologies
- (12:34) The OPC Foundation’s role in industrial communication
- (14:16) An update on the OPC-FX standard
- (15:44) How OPC Foundation’s open standards benefit manufacturers
- (18:13) The importance of working with partners on open standards
- (23:20) What’s next for the OPC Foundation
To learn more about OPC UA, read OPC UA: Communicating in the Industrial Ecosystem. For the latest innovations from ABB, B+R, Intel®, and OPC Foundation, follow them on Twitter at @ABBgroupnews, @BR_Automation, @Inteliot, and the @OPCFoundation; and LinkedIn at ABB, B&R Industrial Automation, Intel Internet of Things, and OPC Foundation.
Christina Cardoza: Hello and welcome to the IoT Chat, where we explore the latest developments in the Internet of Things. I’m your host, Christina Cardoza, Associate Editorial Director of insight.tech. And today we’re talking about industrial device communications with a panel of experts from B&R Automation, ABB, the OPC Foundation, and Intel®. But before we jump into the conversation, let’s get to know our guests. Peter Lutz from the OPC Foundation, I’ll start with you. Please tell us more about yourself and the company.
Peter Lutz: Yeah, so, I’m Peter Lutz. I’m responsible for the so-called field-level communications initiative of the OPC Foundation. We take care of extensions for OPC UA, to bring OPC UA to the field level. A few words about the OPC Foundation. This is a nonprofit organization developing specifications for the industry. We have currently more than 880 members, including all the big names in IT and OT. And we are then submitting our specs to international-standardization bodies, such as IEC.
Christina Cardoza: Great. Looking forward to hearing more about the foundation and your efforts in the industrial space. Stefan Schönegger, from B&R Automation, please tell us more about yourself and B&R.
Stefan Schönegger: Yes, hello everyone. And thanks, Christina, for having me on this panel today. My name is Stefan Schönegger, and I’m heading the PLC and Industrial Communication Business at B&R. And B&R is a global company, part of the ABB group, and primarily serving the OEM machinery market with leading-edge automation solutions.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And we’ll move to ABB next. We have Bernhard Eschermann. Bernhard, welcome to the show.
Bernhard Eschermann: Yeah. Thanks a lot, Christina. Yeah, I’m Bernhard Eschermann, I’m with ABB, as you already explained. ABB, as a global engineering and technology company, probably doesn’t need a big introduction. And I’m the CTO of Process Automation, which is one of the four global businesses of ABB, dealing with the automation, electrification, and digitalization of industries that produce stuff that you don’t measure in the number of pieces—that’s the discrete automation, that more what Stefan would deal with—but in details, kilograms, kilowatt hours, cubic meters, and so on. And I’ve been the CTO for a number of years in ABB Process Automation, also responsible for the process-automation products and platforms we have. And, on the group level in ABB, I lead the overall technology team as the so-called primus inter pares. And the link to the OPC Foundation is that obviously OPC Foundation has a lot of companies that are members, and I represent ABB on the board of the OPC Foundation.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And, last but not least, David McCall from Intel. David, thanks for joining us today.
David McCall: Thanks for having me. Lovely to be here. Yeah, I’m Senior Director of Industrial Standards at Intel. I think Intel needs very little introduction, although most people, or some people, may not be familiar with our involvement in the industrial space. We have a thriving industrial PC business. We’re also seeing a lot of transformation potential there as more compute gets applied to the industrial processes and we shift from being a more hardware-focused business to a more software-focused ecosystem. So I’m involved in part of that, and trying to make sure that the right standards are in place to enable that transformation, and also apply some of our expertise from other fields into the industrial space.
Christina Cardoza: Well, great to have you all joining today. The reason why we wanted to put together such a panel of experts is over the last couple of years the manufacturing and industrial space has transformed tremendously. We have more devices connected to the internet and to each other than ever before. More sensors and data coming. And so that has caused some complications for manufacturers. So, Stefan, I want to start with you and really set the stage for this conversation. What are the biggest challenges you and your company have been seeing on the factory floor today?
Stefan Schönegger: I think, first of all, it’s actually not us that faces the challenges. It’s our customers. And if we look on our customer sites—and then we mentioned in intro that we talk about the world which claims to be in the middle of an era of IoT—then basically our customers would argue that’s not yet the case. And just taking a couple of examples, we have devices in a manufacturing plant talking to each other, if at all, and not at all considering security. And we know about security and the number of security threats we are facing in our world, and manufacturing specifically is heavily exposed to that. And not considering security, I would say is really the first pain we see that our customers are facing today.
Second, I mentioned not every device is talking to each other. And, again, when we talk about IoT, and we still have a tremendous amount of equipment that’s actually not yet talking to each other, that might be for the fact that simply we have equipment out there that doesn’t have yet the capability to exchange data. But, even more so, we have an issue of a very heterogeneous world of equipment coming from different vendors, and different vendors using different standards, primarily proprietary standards. And that’s, again, something which really hinders the introduction of advanced analytics, of data really being transferred and converted into value. And OPC UA and TSN would really be the answer to tackle those questions.
And last but not least, we also need to make sure that data can be interpreted without reading a 100- or 1,000-page handbook to know what’s actually behind the bits and bytes that’s transferred over the wires. And, again here, OPC UA and the semantics that are associated with it is really the answer that our customers are looking for.
Christina Cardoza: Absolutely. And it sounds like there are a wealth of challenges and complexities in today’s smart factory and Industry 4.0. So, Bernhard, I’m wondering if you can expand on some of the challenges Stefan just mentioned, and explain why it has been so challenging or hard to get these devices to communicate to each other, to collect all the data, and to really add the security aspect into everything.
Bernhard Eschermann: Yeah, I guess a lot of that problem goes back to history, because in the past multiple of our communication standards for these so-called fieldbuses were developed by different companies, and none of the companies that developed a particular standard wanted to give it up. And even after moving to ethernet as a predominant lower-layer protocol, there are still multiple standards for the layers above. For example, to provide deterministic periodic communication of real-time data.
And I always compare this with trying to build railway lines between two cities. Instead of building one big railway line, which would be the most efficient way to get fast trains from A to B, we’ve had multiple lines that are all slower. And with this new standard that the whole industry seems to embrace, now finally we should get to something that actually gets us this one, very fast railway line.
Another challenge is that we don’t have consistent information models for data when it moves from the instruments where something is measured, through the automation and to the edge, to central service and the cloud. And OPC UA actually provides a way to have consistent information models between all of these different layers so that we don’t have the translation effort and loss of information in between the different layers. So all of that is very important to making the world of communication change dramatically in the future.
Christina Cardoza: Absolutely. And you and Stefan have teased a little bit of what we’re going to get into. Today’s conversation is the OPC Foundation and the OPC UA and other standards out there. But before we get into that, we’re talking about all these challenges and complexities, and some may be wondering that it might be too much effort, it might be too much risk than the effort is worth with adding all of these devices. But these new technologies like the Internet of Things and AI are really benefiting the manufacturing space and the factory floor.
So, David, I’m wondering, since Intel has been such a leader in some of these digital technologies that the manufacturing industry is adding, if you could talk a little bit about the benefits of them, but also the challenges to industrial communications adding them in.
David McCall: Sure. So, as we just heard, right now the industrial comms tend to mean wired. It’s deterministic because there’s some level of mission criticality involved, whether that’s tight timing requirements or a need for high reliability or both. And the networking layer is tightly tied into an industrial automation protocol that runs over it. So if you’ve got one automation protocol that means one network, and you can have trouble getting the data out from that little confined ecosystem.
You’ve got those two drivers you mentioned: the IoT in general, and then specifically AI and machine vision, which I would sort of put together. IoT generally means more devices, which means more connectivity. Not all of that is probably going to be mission critical. Some of it will be, but not all of it. And not all of it’s going to be wired in the long run either. We are expecting to see some of those wireless technologies, whether it’s Wi-Fi or 5G, coming in initially in those non–mission critical areas, where you’re adding some safety requirements or some monitoring and just getting those deployed quickly and cheaply. Because running cable is expensive, is where wireless can bring in a real benefit. But also those wireless technologies are adding in their own deterministic capabilities, so they will become part of the production line and those mission-critical control loops as well in the longer term.
Then you’ve got the AI/machine vision. Those are workloads that ingest just huge quantities of data. Most of those are currently running in the data center, which because of the deterministic challenges means they’re maybe not timing critical, but we can see huge opportunities for applying those technologies to those mission-critical, timing-critical loads. So you’re blending and blurring the lines a bit between what is traditionally thought of as an IT technology and OT technology.
So, long term we’re looking at having a single deterministic network which spans both wired and wireless technologies, and the workloads can just take the appropriate path. You’ll deploy the right technologies in the right places, and this will all be a homogenous network that any protocol can take advantage of.
But that’s a huge amount of work. You’re absolutely right that that is a huge effort, and to do that for every single automation protocol that’s out there right now just doesn’t seem feasible, which is one of the reasons we have for trying to make sure that this is all going to work over one network so that at that lower layer we’re just going to be putting in that huge amount of effort once, and then everybody can use it. So, big transitions are coming. You’re just starting to see the beginnings of it right now. But we are working diligently—the companies on this call and others—to make sure that we’ve got the standards in place, and obviously that’s what I’m mostly working on, to make sure we support that transition across the whole ecosystem.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And the good news is there are efforts being made to address these challenges and complexities. So, Peter from the OPC Foundation, what can you tell us about the work that you’ve been doing with the organization and the standards playing a role to address these challenges?
Peter Lutz: Yeah, so Stefan and Bernhard already mentioned some of the key features and benefits of OPC UA. So maybe I can give a quick summary of what is so special about OPC UA. It’s what we call an industrial framework to support interoperability, and this includes the built-in security mechanisms. It includes mechanisms to do information modeling, which is then driving also the common semantics—to have really semantics that are absolutely vendor neutral and vendor independent.
And we are working actually on extensions on the one hand side for enhancing cloud connectivity, but also bringing OPC UA to the field for the different requirements we have. For example, deterministic communication, motion control, instrumentation, and not to forget functional safety. And with these extensions we actually are able to establish OPC UA as a really fully scalable industrial-communication solution that is fully scaling from the field to the cloud. And also, so to say, vice versa, or also horizontally—so, between controllers, between field devices, between edge devices, or even between cloud systems.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And as part of the field-device challenges, I believe the standard from the OPC Foundation is the OPC FX. So, what can you tell us more about the work going on in that standard and where it is today?
Peter Lutz: Right, so OPC UA FX is the term we use for the extensions to the OPC UA framework to cover the various use cases in the field level. So this is including, for example, controller-to-controller communications, but also then controller-to–field device, including field device–to–field device communications. And this is very important to understand, that we are not creating a new generation of technology, but we really are basing the solution on the existing OPC UA framework so all the companies supporting OPC UA today can easily migrate or upgrade their products or applications to also support then the extensions for field level. And how we are doing this is we use different mappings to underlying transport protocols and physical layers. This is then very use-case specific. So, if we talk about communication to the cloud, we use MQTT. If we communicate in the field we use, for example, UDP IP.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And some of the standards manufacturers have already started leveraging. So, when we talk about all these challenges and complexities, Bernhard, I’m wondering if you can expand on the benefits that you see your customers see once they start utilizing OPC Foundation and the various standards, like the OPC UA and the coming FX.
Bernhard Eschermann: Yeah. If we start on the lower level and we take for example OPC FX, using TSN as the lower-layer communication protocol, obviously you’ve got the benefit that you can mix various types of traffic—nondeterministic event-based traffic and deterministic real-time traffic—on a single communication medium, which, for example, in our case means that for connecting the control room to cameras in the field, to sensors in the field, to actuators in the field, can all be done over the same communication medium without actually requiring separate wiring.
If you look at connecting devices that need to be powered over the network, we’ve got a standard called APL, advanced physical layer, coming that allows to provide both communication to instruments as well as the power to instruments over a special variant of ethernet. And, again, we can have OPC UA on top of it.
And obviously if we have this OPC UA layer throughout the system on different physical layers on different transport protocols, that means that the interpretation of data stays the same throughout the system, and you don’t need to have any translations. It also stays the same no matter from which particular supplier particular equipment that is involved in all of this comes. And that obviously is a large benefit in terms of the engineering that would be needed otherwise. So it helps the customers because they can connect anything to anything. It helps us because it reduces the efforts on our side for developing all kinds of different mappings and adapters.
Christina Cardoza: That sounds great for customers, taking advantage of OPC UA; it solves a lot of the headache and challenges that they’re facing today. But I know, like David mentioned, this is a challenging effort, so I know it takes a lot of partners in the ecosystem to really make it possible, to really make standards like this make a dent in some of the issues we’re seeing today. So, Stefan, I’m wondering if you can talk about why you joined the OPC Foundation to work on these standards, and how you’re working with other partners in the ecosystem to address industrial communications.
Stefan Schönegger: I think, referring to what Bernhard has said, I can only copy that, and if you summarize all the benefits that have been mentioned, in my opinion there is only one way forward, and that is all about adopting open standards, enabling open ecosystems, going towards security. So, from that point of view, we could make the answer very simple: there was no other choice. And I would even see that whoever would not take that path—either from a supplier point-of-view, like automation equipment like we are, but also from a sensor equipment, but also from companies producing edge equipment or other back-end systems, cloud systems that play in the field of manufacturing—not adopting open standards is a dead-end road. So, taking that, I think to stay on a competitive level OPC UA FX, TSN, OPC UA in general is really the only way to go.
Look maybe a step further into the future going towards more autonomous systems, again, you can’t manually interpret data, you can’t push data over gateways and still hope that the semantics haven’t been changed. Autonomous systems will require autonomously working analytical paradigms. And, again, you will end up with capabilities that are only provided by OPC UA and FX. So from this point of view that’s the only way to go.
Christina Cardoza: And it’s great to see a technology giant like Intel involved in the OPC Foundation and these standards, because I think it really helps others in the industry see OPC Foundation, OPC UA, and the OPC FX standards as legitimate standards that they should be also applying in their factory. So, David, I’m wondering if you can tell us more about Intel’s involvement in the foundation and the standards, and why you decided to help support this initiative.
David McCall: Sure. Well, I already talked about how we have this vision of more software-defined architecture coming into the industrial ecosystem, more of these advanced workloads. And we’ve just been hearing about some of the problems that we can see that could act as barriers to the adoption of those sorts of approaches. We saw OPC, and particularly the UA FX extension, turning what was existing UA technology into a true fieldbus as being a key way to overcome some of those barriers.
So we wanted to get involved and to make sure that that is a really strong, viable standard, not just at the technology level, but at a business level—certification, all the other things that go together to make a truly interoperable ecosystem. And we can then take that and then show these use cases working in the real world. So we can put together demonstrators and be right there at the cutting edge, because that’s where we do see OPC UA FX as leading the way, and showing how you can put together the technologies that are going to be absolutely critical in the next five to ten years.
Christina Cardoza: And I would love to hear from Peter’s side what the importance has been for OPC Foundation to work with Intel and B&R and ABB, as well as how you get other companies to work together on promoting the standard.
Peter Lutz: Yeah, so it’s, I think, important to understand that the OPC Foundation is elaborating the specifications together with member companies of the OPC Foundation. So, for this, we have different working groups set up, and here we heavily rely on the expertise and the know-how which comes in from these automation players like B&R and ABB, but also technology providers such as Intel. The good thing is that we have all the big support from OT as well as from IT companies already as a given.
So the good thing is we need not convince anyone, because there is broad support. All the big names in automation have committed to support the OPC UA FX as extensions for OPC UA. That means certainly as soon as the specifications are available we have then also the small and medium enterprises that are building their products upon OPC. But this is a given because the whole industry is relying on OPC UA. So this is easy for us.
Christina Cardoza: So, what can we expect next from the OPC Foundation? What standards are you going to be working to bring out next? Or how are you going to work in the future to improve these standards even further?
Peter Lutz: So, certainly we are continuously improving our specs, and this, as I said before, it’s a framework. So we are working on different elements, on different levels or layers, you could say. And I think Bernhard was mentioning some of the key technologies that are really elementary for the further success of OPC UA to cover all the requirements.
So, one key technology is certainly TSN, because it provides to us the deterministic transport, and also is key for the IT/OT convergence. But in addition, especially for the process industry, the combination with the advanced physical layer ethernet, APL, is highly relevant, because by bringing ethernet to the field in these more critical applications in the hazardous areas we open also the door for bringing in OPC UA and OPC UA FX in all these field devices.
But it’s difficult to highlight a specific extension or development. As I said, we are also working on cloud connectivity. So, overall we have a big framework and multiple working groups, so we are continuously improving and updating to the needs of the industry.
Bernhard Eschermann: Don’t forget 5G, Peter, because obviously once we have a deterministic wireless-connectivity protocol, that’s of course also a good place for OPC.
Peter Lutz: Thanks for the hint, Bernhard. Absolutely, yeah. This is why we already demonstrated that OPC UA and OPC UA FX also work over wireless connectivity. So, I picked out the two most important ones for the moment. Wireless connectivity is for sure very important, not only 5G but also Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 7 support. So this is the good thing with OPC, that it’s transport agnostic, and we can so easily adapt to all the different standards that are relevant for industrial communication.
Christina Cardoza: Well, I’m excited to see how else the OPC Foundation, and B&R Automation, ABB, and Intel work to improve the manufacturing industry and really make us a smarter manufacturing—bring us into that Industry 4.0 truly. And it seems like we’ve only just scratched the surface of this conversation—we could go in even deeper. But unfortunately we are running out of time. So, before we go, I just want to throw it back to each and every one of you to—any final key thoughts or takeaways you want to leave our listeners with today, as well as where you expect the future of industrial communications will go and how your organization will be a part of it. So, David, I will start with you.
David McCall: I think the—well, Peter made the point that OPC has really succeeded in making itself the de facto future for the industry. The only question is now about how quickly is that transition going to happen? I think if you go back a few years there was maybe some questions about whether some of the bigger players would really embrace the OPC UA FX direction. I think that’s very clearly changed, and we see that all of the major vendors are looking to support their own existing protocols, plus UA FX. So UA FX will gradually become sort of the lingua franca of IoT right down at the control level. It already is mostly that going up to the cloud. All the major cloud vendors, they’re all standardizing on OPC UA for that sort of communication. So, yeah, the network, I think, is going to be shared by multiple protocols, but OPC UA FX is going to be right there at the cutting edge. And then gradually, particularly in greenfield sites and then gradually more and more across brownfield sites, it’s going to become the de facto communication protocol.
Christina Cardoza: And that’s probably a whole other conversation in itself, the greenfield versus brownfield efforts. But, Stefan, before we go, is there anything else you wanted to add or any final key takeaways you wanted to leave listeners with?
Stefan Schönegger: Well, yes. I try again to put myself in the point of view of customers, and I think if all you would like to do is to run the factory, then the last thing you want to do is talk about details such as industrial communications, and, “How I can connect one device with the other from different vendors?” So, from that point of view, I can only encourage the market, the operators of factories or the producers of equipment, of assets, to really start adopting OPC UA, because that is the answer. If you just want to focus on the efficiency and on the output and on the maybe adaptability of your factory and of your production line, then OPC UA is the answer to afterwards not having to spend any thoughts and any concerns on industrial communication.
Christina Cardoza: Great. And, Bernhard, where do you think this is all going? How is ABB going to be a part of it? Or what do you hope the listeners get out of this conversation today?
Bernhard Eschermann: Well, there’s no question that ABB will be a part of it. We’ve been strongly driving the whole effort. But I guess what people should actually look at is everybody talks about the world being driven by data, and the main thing this is about is that any data created anywhere in an industrial plant shall be available with the needed quality of service to anyplace where it’s needed—and that basically without communication engineering.
And what we should actually think much more about is how can we get value out of the wealth of data that is available in the various factories and plants around the world in order to improve the efficiency; in order to improve the energy efficiency, which is of course nowadays a very important question; in order to improve the productivity of these plants and apply all of these techniques that typically are not running in the instrument itself, but possibly at the edge or in the cloud, like machine-learning from all of these data.
And so I’m convinced that the world will benefit a lot, not from the communication standard by itself, but also from being able to make much more use of the data that is already available. And as a final thought, there are lots of places where competition makes sense—for example, about how to use that data to create useful insights. But competition, in my view, doesn’t make sense in developing competing communication standards that are all doing the same thing. That’s not a useful way of having competition. The competition should be on more valuable things than that.
Christina Cardoza: Absolutely. And it’s great to see all of you come together on this standard to make it possible and to eliminate those competing efforts out there. And since the large conversation has been around OPC Foundation and the standards you’re working on, Peter, I will end with you. Any final key thoughts or takeaways you want to leave us with today?
Peter Lutz: Yeah, a lot has been said already, but maybe just from my personal perspective, I’m absolutely convinced that OPC UA—especially with the extensions we are currently working on for field level—will become the dominating industrial communication standard, also for the field level. And for me it’s two aspects to this. On the one hand side, I believe with the framework, with the strict layering, with the flexibility, and all the features that OPC UA is providing—it’s from a technical perspective the future proof solution, and the only solution that is actually really scaling, what I mentioned before, fully scaling from the field to the cloud, which no other communication solution can provide today.
But the second aspect is more on the big support, as we have all the big players supporting it. It’s becoming the standard just because of the broad acceptance, and because OPC UA was always considered to be somehow what I typically call the neutral ground—not doing, as Bernhard mentioned, a competition on the communication interfaces and the communication solutions, but take competition out of that. And I think this is finally the success formula for a broad adoption of OPC UA across all the different levels.
Christina Cardoza: So, for our listeners today and any organizations who want to learn more about the OPC Foundation, get involved, or learn more about the standards going on within the organization, where should they look to get that information? How can they get involved?
Peter Lutz: So, certainly OPC Foundation homepage is an excellent entry point to learn more about the technology and all the activities going on. But certainly membership is certainly important, because as a member you can become more closely involved, even signing up for the different working groups. But just learning about OPC UA and the different flavors and use cases—also the YouTube channel of OPC Foundation—is, I think, an excellent entry point. Listening to the experts explaining the technical concepts and also the benefits is for sure helpful.
Christina Cardoza: Absolutely. Well, with that, I want to thank all of you for joining the podcast today, and thanks to our listeners for tuning in. If you liked this episode, please subscribe, rate, review, like, all of the above on your favorite streaming platform. And, until next time, this has been the IoT chat.
The preceding transcript is provided to ensure accessibility and is intended to accurately capture an informal conversation. The transcript may contain improper uses of trademarked terms and as such should not be used for any other purposes. For more information, please see the Intel® trademark information.
This transcript was edited by Erin Noble, copy editor.