Migrating industrial operations data directly to the cloud with OPC UA

In this follow up to an interview with Martin Rostan of the EtherCAT Technology Group, Industrial Embedded Systems spoke with Thomas J. Burke, President and Executive Director of the OPC Foundation on a recent memorandum of understanding (MoU) between the two organizations, and how industry partnerships are taking hold on the Internet of Things (IoT) that will enable industrial operations data to migrate efficiently into the enterprise.

Can you touch on the importance of comprehensive information models, and explain how service-oriented architectures (SOAs) like OPC UA help information modeling for the Big Data of IoT and Industry 4.0?

BURKE: One of the things that we recognized early on when we began the development of OPC UA was to separate out the data from the services. This has become a key architecture that really allows us to take other vendors’ and, more importantly, other organizations’ data and be able to model this information into a UA namespace such that generic client applications can discover and be able to consume the data without having any pre-built-in or compiled knowledge of the data and metadata.

If you think about the world of consumer electronics and the impact it has had, the engineers of tomorrow have come to expect multi-vendor, multi-platform interoperability and the ability to discover and operate on data in ways we never dreamed of before. Simple examples of digital images and the amount of metadata that’s kept with them now can directly be applied in the world of industrial automation.

As we think about security, the ability to have historical data retained on the operational characteristics of devices and applications cannot be underestimated. With the comprehensive information model that OPC UA has provided, we’ve got a mechanism to allow other organizations to have seamless information integration and interoperability across the myriad of domains. We are now seeing industrial and building automation systems being tied together, and the ability to have devices and applications that are able to communicate information and intelligently understand how to operate on that information will allow us to do more efficient predictive analysis on assets and streamline runtime operations.

Can you provide some background on the MoU that OPC UA has in place with the EtherCAT Technology Group?

BURKE: We recognized a unique opportunity with EtherCAT, where it made logical sense for OPC and the EtherCAT organization to be working together to achieve information integration between disparate applications and devices. In the ever-changing world of technology, the end users and the suppliers are trying to maximize their use of technology in an appropriate fashion.

OPC UA has been very focused on collaboration and helping enable traditional fieldbus networks model their data into useful information that can then be transported via the SOA of OPC UA directly into the cloud. One of the big things related to IoT and Industry 4.0 is data connectivity and information integration. OPC UA provides an easy way for information modeling such that generic clients can access complex information without having any prior knowledge of the complex information model supported by the underlying data server. OPC has partnered with all of the fieldbus networks and become the solution for the fieldbus network organizations to achieve interoperability between IT and OT systems, as their data can be migrated directly into enterprise solutions and the cloud.

Many of the suppliers that deliver high-quality, reliable, EtherCAT-based products also want to have their devices integrated into higher-level systems both for configuration and runtime operation. It made logical sense that we work between the OPC Foundation and the EtherCAT Technology Group to develop a companion specification to model the data of EtherCAT devices in such a fashion that information can be easily consumed and processed in higher tier application systems in both the manufacturing execution system (MES) and enterprise space. Things like predictive analytics and cloud-based data and processing can now be integrated into solutions for EtherCAT-supported devices.

With all the fuss around Industrial IoT and Industry 4.0, is there anything else up the OPC Foundation’s sleeves?

BURKE: OPC UA has become the platform for the Industrial IoT, as well as Industry 4.0. What’s most important is realizing that technology and innovations will continue to evolve, and we must have an architecture that truly provides timeless durability for interoperability of existing systems, current systems, and systems we’ve never even dreamed of.

I see significant opportunities for OPC as we continue to work with other organizations to facilitate information integration and interoperability into many other domains. OPC UA, for example, will be used in production of automobiles, as well as inside the automobile, as we build more complex systems and have all of our devices inside of our automobile become connected IoT devices.

There are a lot of consumer IoT devices out there like intelligent water bottles, intelligent tennis rackets, and anything related to fitness and security that we’re gathering data from and turning into information that is then exchanged with higher-level applications. In the world of industrial automation and related domains, and even unrelated domains, OPC UA will become the dominant technology for interoperability of information exchange between devices and applications.

Thomas J. Burke is the President and Executive Director of the OPC Foundation.

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