For being so quiet for so long, the OPC Foundation is certainly hitting the news often lately. There was news about a couple of open-source initiatives. Then the Foundation itself opened up a little with an “open-shared” program.
Then it was announced as the communication platform of Industry 4.0 in Germany.
Now a couple European automation rivals—Beckhoff Automation (Germany) and B&R Automation (Austria)—have made OPC news.
Taken in sum, these announcements plus the earlier ones reveal the importance of OPC to industrial communication. It became a standard for moving important data from control systems to human-machine interface systems and then on to SCADA and MES systems.
With the introduction of UA built on modern software technologies including built-in security and embeddable format, the technology everyone used but also everyone dissed finds itself on the cutting edge of modern connected industrial Internet strategies.
OPC and Beckhoff
News coming from last month’s Hannover Messe included this joint announcement from OPC and Beckhoff.
OPC UA is about scalable communication with integrated security by design up to MES / ERP systems and into the cloud, EtherCAT is about hard real-time capability in machines and factory control systems. Both technologies complement each other perfectly.
Industrie 4.0 and Internet of Things (IoT) architectures require consistent communication across all levels while using Internet technologies: both in as well as outside of the factory, for example to cloud-based services. That exactly is what the OPC Foundation and the EtherCAT Technology Group (ETG) want to account for by defining a common definition of open interfaces between their respective technologies.
At the Hanover Fair Thomas J. Burke, President and Executive Director of the OPC Foundation and Martin Rostan, Executive Director of the ETG signed a Memorandum of Understanding in which both organizations agree to closely co-operate developing these interfaces.
OPC and B&R
Not to be outdone, B&R Automation issued a press release announcing it will be supporting the OPC Foundation’s new real-time technology working groups, whose goal is to add real-time capability to the OPCUA communication standard. This will involve two key additions to the OPCUA standard. The first is a publisher-subscriber model; the other is utilization of the IEEE 802.1 standard for time-sensitive networking (TSN).
B&R will be contributing its real-time expertise to the working groups. “The updates to the OPC UA standard will benefit from our years of experience in developing real-time solutions,” says Stefan Schönegger, marketing manager at B&R.
OPC UA uses a publish/subscribe network model. B&R is the main proponent of PowerLink. PowerLink uses publish/subscribe technology, too. So, B&R wants to show compatibility.
“This is a fundamental requirement for the M2M communication you find in integrated systems such as packaging lines,” explains Schönegger.
In order to fulfill real-time requirements, the OPC UA standard will make use of the IEEE 802.1 TSN standard. “At the moment, TSN is still a working title for a group of new IEEE standards designed to provide native real-time capability for the IEEE 802 Ethernet standard,” says Schönegger. This would allow for a seamless transition to substantially faster Ethernet standards such as POWERLINK for field-level communication and demanding motion control tasks.
Beyond the automation industry, TSN is currently also being evaluated by the automotive and telecommunications industries. “The first cars based on TSN are expected to hit the market in the very near future,” reports Schönegger. This would help secure the widespread availability of this technology. In addition to B&R, the new OPC working groups will be also supported by other leaders in the field of automation, as was announced by KUKA on April 13, 2015.
OPC UA already plays a central role in the IT-related areas of modern production systems. “The addition of TSN and the publisher-subscriber model will greatly expand the range of potential OPC UA applications,” says Schönegger.
What all this means is that OPC can now become even faster and more usable than before. The little protocol that everyone uses and everyone complains about is getting cred as it becomes more modern. These technological advances should make it more valuable. And that will be significant in this new connected enterprise era.