Open Process Automation and IT/OT Convergence. Thursday, the last day of the ARC Forum, is not always all that well attended. The 2017 edition witnessed two sessions that held the attention of the later departing attendees. These two attracted a reasonably good attendance.

I didn’t do the IT/OT one, but I had great interest in the Open Process Automation Forum (Open DCS?).

This was my 20th ARC Forum. My first Forum featured another open control series of meetings on Thursday morning—The Open Modular Architecture Controller group. That group of engineers and managers sought to specify a PLC based upon the computing standards of the time. The culmination of that effort was a CompactPCI chassis cobbled together by an entrepreneur. It was not picked up. Meanwhile OMAC pivoted when end user companies principally P&G and Nestle moved the focus to packaging machines. The goal became machines that used standard states and HMI in order to reduce training time for operators as they moved from machine to machine.

ExxonMobil appeared at the Forum last year with an idea. It wished to reduce the cost to deploy and eventually upgrade its control systems. It had worked with Lockheed Martin to devise a plan from the avionics industry (FACE).

This session at the Forum updated attendees with progress. It has formed under The Open Group as the Open Process Automation Forum. Although driven by ExxonMobil initially, the goal is to form a broad alliance of owner/operators, end users, systems integrators, and suppliers developing this new automation platform.

Many people at the conference relate this effort to the old OMAC work. They see the end game as a customer trying to drive down the cost of the system. Especially a customer who faces two problems: the immediate problem of upgrading old technology; the long range cost of upgrading technology to newer levels.

Another way to view this initiative is more altruistic in the sense of driving disruptive change in the market for all users using standards.

I am conflicted in trying to understand the dynamics of the situation. As a proponent of standards, I applaud the effort to find ways to implement standards and interoperability. Interoperability has been proven in many industries as a driver for business growth. The idea of decoupling hardware and software holds great promise for future upgrades.

But if, in effect, the customers simply wish to drive automation components and software to commodity level, then I see problems. Such ideas have killed entire industries in the past.

I also look at the old PC technology when there many players developing cards for the PC bus to add on to an “IBM PC.” But over time, technology enabled chip manufacturers to incorporate all those features into the main CPU and the industry returned to basically a single source for a computer.

Predictions? I’m not making any right now. However…

This process is now more than a year old, and yet, the theme of the Forum in Orlando was a plea for participation. There were few other owner/operators. Even though almost all major suppliers have signed on, only two (Schneider Electric and Yokogawa) appear to be active. The leaders have put forth an ambitious timing plan. The group is going to have to build a critical mass of participants quickly.

One more point. There is an age-old tension between an end-user wishing to reduce procurement costs by being able to competitively bid everything. However that means that someone must assemble all the components. On the other hand, end user companies also like partnerships with suppliers for joint development and better service.

By decoupling end user from supplier, something or someone must fill the gap. That would be the system integrator, I guess.

There are many questions.

Without further comment, I’ll leave you with the Open Process Automation Forum’s Vision Statement.

Composed of a broad group of end users, product suppliers, systems integrators, and academics, the Forum will create a technologically appropriate open process automation architecture and specifications along with business guidance for its adoption and use.

  • This will result in a standards-based open, secure, and interoperable process automation architecture and instances thereof that have the following characteristics:
    Easily integrates best-in-class components to provide timely access to leading edge performance
  • Employs an adaptive intrinsic security model
  • Enables the procurement and modular interaction of certified conformant components into systems that are fit-for-purpose for the end users’ needs
  • Is commercially available and applicable to multiple industry sectors
  • Protects suppliers’ Intellectual Property within conformant components
  • Enables portability and preservation of end users’ application software
  • Significantly reduces the difficulty of future replacements and reduces the lifecycle cost of systems
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