Will OPC-UA negate the need for multiple gateways?

28 March 2017

Factory operators who need to integrate machines from different suppliers often still face the dilemma that those machines cannot communicate naturally with each other. Therefore the integration – both of a new plant, or integrating new machines into existing infrastructures – is still a challenge.

“The call for standardisation was answered by OPC-UA, says Stefan Selke, segment manager machine building at Eaton. “today, nearly every week additional companies from the machine automation market are joining the OPC family.”

While the initial idea behind OPC-UA was to facilitate M2M communication it developed into other fields of application. Notwithstanding that OPC-UA with its Client-Server Architecture was designed for smart factory communication; the next generation of this protocol, offering pub/sub functionality, is already underway. This upcoming version of OPC-UA opens the world to Cloud communication based on standards. 

“SME machine builders and system integrators often don’t have the opportunity or the means to invest in secure, high-performance IoT and cloud technology. The conventional way to monitor a worldwide installation base for multiple customers is to use a dial-in system to collect the necessary data. This is not an effective way to monitor system conditions,” continued Selke. “It depends on the end customer opening up its local network to external access. Using the potential of OPC-UA for M2M and M2Cloud communications sets all machine interfaces to a single architecture.”

Eaton and T-Systems have bundled their key competencies to create a multi-IoT platform that networks machine equipment via the cloud. Based on Microsoft Azure, it seamlessly collects data from machines and applications based on a unified architecture that just needs to be adapted to individual requirements. The data is transported and secured safely and can be provided in customised dashboards to different groups of users. 

Each subscriber is provided exactly with the information needed. And there is just one secured line of communication from the smart factory into the cloud. All these users access the stored data directly, no longer having to bypass the end user’s Firewall.
Many new machines are integrated into existing infrastructures that may not have the capability to communicate on the OPC protocol. For such cases there is a variety of possibilities to update machines carefully, without the need to touch the PLC. By simply adding new visualisation devices or interfaces with the right capabilities, even existing machines can communicate with the cloud based on OPC-UA. 

Component level
One question that still needs to be answered is whether there is a need or benefit in bringing OPC-UA down to the component level? Currently, Industrial Ethernet is heterogeneous in nature. The one common theme is that regardless of the chosen Ethernet protocol installed on the machine, it all adheres to the same basic communication TCP/IP language and therefore is compatible with OPC-UA. A potential way to connect up to OPC-UA would be using a workable set of components to create a Cyber Physical System (CPS) and execute such a functionality – a ‘smart to manage’ CPS.

Different machines from different suppliers will feature several CPSs and they would all communicate using the same protocol. In the future, each machine might consist of several independent, modular CPSs that communicate directly through the OPC-UA protocol. This will enable every application to talk to another without needing multiple gateways. By bridging the communication gap via the OPC-UA standard down into the machine, the once defined levels of the automation pyramid become well and truly blurred. This will open up new possibilities to design modular machines, faster and more cost efficient.

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