Automate Report 3: Inductive Automation and Opto 22

While at Automate 2024 I saw Travis Cox of Inductive Automation and Benson Hougland of Opto 22. It was tough seeing them since their booth was always packed. I wound up walking through the show and out into the corridor with them.

These two companies plus Cirrus Link (MQTT and Sparkplug) are perhaps the best partnership combination I’ve seen in my years reporting in this market. Ignition running on Opto’s Groov Epic platform with MQTT and Sparkplug as the communications architecture solve many customer problems.

Hougland told me that they are continuing to build out the Groov platform. And to watch for cool things coming.

Cox told me that the big thing to pay attention to right now from Inductive Automation is the integration with Snowflake (more below). He says the integration keeps improving.

Here is Cox describing the integration at the last Ignition Community Conference:

And well, we got all the community to participate, where they’re basically leveraging Ignition or Ignition Edge or potentially have a smart device that speaks MQTT Sparkplug and they’re gonna build a data model, publish that up to a Chariot broker that’s in the cloud. Real simple. Then we can use the IoT bridge for Snowflake by Cirrus Link and all that data from Sparkplug goes directly into the Snowflake database. We’re showing it on a dashboard within Ignition, but it’s going to Snowflake database as well. And we can easily go and query that data. And we went one step further and we’re actually showing the anomaly detection within the Data Dash. So we’ll do a demonstration of this in just a moment, but wanna show you just how easy it is for this solution. And it’s all something we could do right now. It’s very, very simple to get started with this whole thing. 

What is Snowflake, you may ask. Here is Pugal Janakiraman from Snowflake speaking at ICC 2024:

Snowflake is a globally connected cloud vendor agnostic data platform. It’s one single managed service from Snowflake. We take care of security, we take care of governance, we take care of scalability. And after that, much more cool, your API of choice is still SQL. You don’t have to learn hundreds of new services. You continue to use SQL as a mechanism to leverage data which is present in Snowflake, whether it is around building dashboards or you want to build an AI and ML model or build inference around those models, you still use SQL as an API for doing that.

Snowflake is a cloud-native database. Data can still reside on-premise or it can reside in whatever is your cloud vendor of choice. You can run analytics without the data movement out there. So we provide that kind of collaboration mechanisms. We provide AI and ML-based analytics. This is how the journey started for us. Ignition on Edge with zero coding using Snowpipe Streaming API, send the data to Snowflake. 

FieldComm Group and FDT Group Explore Strategic Business Collaboration

A merger of these industrial communication protocol organizations is probably overdue, but certainly timely. As the industrial technology marketplace matures further consolidation makes sense. Each organization has achieved many advancements helping engineers and operations professionals do a better job. Most of the development work is done. It’s time to do more evangelizing and convince more companies to invest in the technologies.

After years of close collaboration, these two leading global standards-based non-profit entities have executed a term sheet to combine resources into a single business focused on creating device integration technology standards and products serving the user and vendor communities of industrial process, hybrid, and factory automation.

FieldComm Group and FDT Group are pleased to announce the completion of a term sheet outlining a plan to create a single business aimed at advancing integration technology and harmonizing control system applications across multiple protocol topologies supporting both process and factory automation. Subject to the completion of a definitive agreement, the new business will continue to support all existing FieldComm Group and FDT Group technologies, including Field Device Integration (FDI), Field Device Tool / Device Type Manager (FDT/DTM), Process Automation Device Information Model (PA-DIM), HART, and FOUNDATION Fieldbus. FieldComm Group will acquire all FDT technology and resources, and an independent Strategic Integration Committee will be formed to guide future directions for protocol-independent device integration technologies.

This strengthened relationship represents a significant step forward in streamlining process automation and factory manufacturing device management, enhancing interoperability throughout the industry. The unified organization is pioneering a transformative vision where industrial device management seamlessly bridges the present and future, ensuring support for the current installed base while facilitating evolution towards harmonized technologies.

This particular strategic integration idea is also long overdue. I’m happy to see this initiative. These mini-battles among major automation suppliers trying to tie customers to proprietary systems has long been a thorn in customers’ sides.

The new Strategic Integration Committee focused on a protocol-agnostic device integration approach will foster alliances with major field protocol organizations, including CC-Link Partner Association, EtherCAT Technology Group, FieldComm Group, ODVA, OPC Foundation, Modbus, Profibus/Profinet International, and others, spearheading innovations to improve engineering efficiency, plant uptime, and user satisfaction across various industrial automation fields. Within this strategic committee, cutting-edge technologies, tools, and certifications will streamline cost-effective adoption for members while providing a single device package compatible with any operating system that will enable effortless data access from field devices to cloud, edge, and mobile applications. This initiative promotes comprehensive integration between Information Technology and Operational Technology (IT/OT) systems.

“This collaboration is a strategic move aimed at providing the best service to our members and the industry at large,” emphasized Ted Masters, President and Chief Executive Officer of FieldComm Group. Steve Biegacki, Managing Director of FDT Group, echoed this sentiment, highlighting that “the enhanced harmonization of standards and technologies will significantly empower end users and manufacturers in their quest to achieve out-of-the-box Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) capabilities across their systems.”

Addressing the Increase in Wireless Demand with Frequency-Hopping Metasurfaces

We all know that the Industrial Internet of Things and other wireless devices are straining the wireless spectrum. Spectrum turns out to be a scarce resource. With continually growing communication requirements, both data and voice, this is a problem searching for a solution. (Unlike many things floating around these days that are solutions searching for a problem.)

I am publishing this entire release regarding research into something called metasurfaces that could provide some of the solution to our spectrum strangling problem.

Recent advances in communication systems, such as the increase in mobile phone users, the adoption of Internet-of-Things devices, and the integration of smart sensors in applications ranging from smart homes to manufacturing have given rise to a surge in wireless traffic. Similar to how a roadway becomes congested with vehicles, the rising wireless traffic is resulting in congestion in the available frequency bands. New frequency bands have been introduced to accommodate more communication signals to operate wireless devices without severe interference with each other.

However, supporting a broad spectrum is challenging. There are only a limited number of frequency bands available. Additionally, it increases the complexity of wireless devices and infrastructure. One possible solution for accommodating signals within existing frequency bands is to tune them in a way to further distinguish them.

Now, in a new study published in Nature Communications, a team of researchers from Japan, led by Associate Professor Hiroki Wakatsuchi from Nagoya Institute of Technology, along with co-authors Ashif Aminulloh Fathnan and Associate Professor Shinya Sugiura of the University of Tokyo, has designed a metasurface that can distinguish wireless signals based on their frequency and pulse width.

In simpler words, metasurfaces are engineered surfaces that can manipulate incident electromagnetic waves to achieve specific modifications leading to the generation of different signals. This ensures that signals are separated and do not interfere with each other, reducing the likelihood of congestion-related issues. These materials can be integrated into radio-frequency devices like antennas and filters to accommodate more users and devices within the same frequency spectrum.

The metasurface developed by researchers in this study distinguishes signals more effectively than traditional materials. “Conventionally, when the number of frequencies available was N, electromagnetic waves and related phenomena could be controlled in N manners, which is now markedly extended to the factorial number of N (i.e., N!),” explains Dr. Wakatsuchi.

The developed metasurface consists of several unit cells that respond to specific frequencies. By activating multiple unit cells, it becomes capable of handling signals across multiple frequency bands. The metasurface can be thought of as a filter that selectively transmits signals based on specific frequency sequences. The researchers liken this to frequency-hopping, where devices switch frequencies rapidly to avoid interference. However, in this case, the metasurface can be tuned to alter incoming signals based on their frequencies. This property makes it possible to receive and distinguish a variety of signals of different frequencies from wireless devices.

As a result, with the new metasurface, the number of signals that can be distinguished grows from a linear relationship to a factorial-based one. “If four or five frequencies are available, the number of signals to be distinguished increases from four or five to 24 or 120,” remarks Dr. Wakatsuchi, adding further, “Going ahead, this could help in more wireless communication signals and devices being made available even with limited frequency resources.”

According to the researchers, the number of devices connected to wireless networks per square kilometer is projected to increase from a million in 5G to 10 million in 6G by 2030. This substantial increase will inevitably strain existing frequency bands. However, with their capability to distinguish wireless signals, metasurfaces represent a novel approach to operate numerous Internet-of-Things sensors and communication devices without severe interference.

In the long run, this will be important for next-generation communication services, such as autonomous driving, smart factories, digital twin, cyber-physical systems, and behavior recognition systems!

Dr. Hiroki Wakatsuchi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering at Nagoya Institute of Technology (NITech), Japan. He completed his Ph.D. from The University of Nottingham, UK whereupon he did his postdoctoral research at UC San Diego, USA. His research interests include electromagnetics, electronics, and communications. He has so far published 62 papers (49 papers between 2005 and 2023) with over 800 citations to his credit. Dr. Wakatsuchi was also a part of the Precursory Research for Embryonic Science and Technology (PRESTO) in the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST) until March 2023. Currently, he is involved with Fusion Oriented Research for Disruptive Science and Technology (FOREST), another JST program.

HPE to acquire Juniper Networks to accelerate AI-driven innovation

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) influencer group first contacted me in the mid-2010s through the Aruba networking group. I was the independent industrial IoT writer at the time. The scope broadened for a time, then they closed the influencer group a couple of years ago. But I’ve maintained a bit of a connection to HPE networking, as well as its software and high-end hardware groups.

I’m not an analyst of this part of the market, but I’d have to say this is not a surprising acquisition. HPE has been pretty aggressive under CEO Antonio Neri. They usually do pretty well at integrating acquisitions. This acquisition of Juniper Networks should be a boost.

From the news release in brief:

  • Highly complementary combination enhances secure, unified, cloud and AI-native networking to drive innovation from edge to cloud to exascale
  • Accelerates long-term revenue growth and expands gross and operating margin; Expected to be accretive to non-GAAP EPS and free cash flow in year 1, post close
  • Advances HPE’s portfolio mix shift toward higher-growth solutions and strengthens high-margin networking business 

Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Juniper Networks, a leader in AI-native networks, announced January 9 that the companies have entered a definitive agreement under which HPE will acquire Juniper in an all-cash transaction for $40.00 per share, representing an equity value of approximately $14 billion.

The combination of HPE and Juniper advances HPE’s portfolio mix shift toward higher-growth solutions and strengthens its high-margin networking business, accelerating HPE’s sustainable profitable growth strategy. The transaction is expected to be accretive to non-GAAP EPS and free cash flow in the first year post close.

The acquisition is expected to double HPE’s networking business, creating a new networking leader with a comprehensive portfolio that presents customers and partners with a compelling new choice to drive business value.

Combining HPE and Juniper’s complementary portfolios supercharges HPE’s edge-to-cloud strategy with an ability to lead in an AI-native environment based on a foundational cloud-native architecture. 

Upon completion of the transaction, Juniper CEO Rami Rahim will lead the combined HPE networking business, reporting to HPE President and CEO Antonio Neri.

FieldComm Group Announces 2023 Plant of the Year

I’m catching up on December news. This is a company whose engineers incorporated much new technology for a project.

FieldComm Group announced that the Daikin Industries Ltd. Plant in Kashima, Japan, has been selected the 2023 Plant of the Year. This is the 21st annual awarding of this unique international honor, presented to end user companies in the process automation industry to recognize the exceptional and valuable application of FOUNDATION Fieldbus, FDI and/or HART Communication technologies.

The Daikin Kashima plant produces a wide range of fluorochemical products used in air conditioning equipment, automobiles, semiconductor production, and other applications. Advanced digital technologies have been applied at this site as part of a digital transformation (DX) initiative. The team has implemented HART-enabled instrumentation, and associated digital diagnostic tools and predictive analytics, all combined with artificial intelligence (AI), so the facility can transition from traditional time-based maintenance to more effective condition-based maintenance.

By first learning normal plant behavior from historized big data, the AI system can then perform nonlinear regression analysis on live data using a neural network, enabling the anomaly detection and prediction needed to address potential problems and avoid unexpected shutdowns.

Many valve positioners, pressure transmitters, and Coriolis flowmeters were already HART-enabled, and the team used Fast Ethernet-based HART converters to access other equipment, along with various DCS/PLC systems. Daikin officials point out that success of AI depends on the accuracy of available data, and HART devices made a difference in this regard.

“The HART signals of each device are wonderful data packed with the know-how of each device manufacturer. By having AI learn this along with various process data in the plant, it’s more likely to be able to learn various signs of equipment anomalies,” said Masumi Yoshida of the Daikin Industries engineering department.

Condition-based maintenance at this plant over the past three years has reduced maintenance costs by an estimated US $400,000, and the team is looking to expand the technology to many more production sites around the world.

A complete list of recipients and their success stories are available.

The Sparkplug Specification Is Now an ISO/IEC Standard 

I’ve had many conversations with Arlen Nipper of Cirrus Link, co-developer of MQTT, and Benson Hougland of Opto 22, early adopter of MQTT and Sparkplug, at the Inductive Automation Ignition Community Conference over several years about the demand for lightweight communications. OPC UA has a place in the toolbox, but many engineers desired a lightweight alternative. MQTT is a fast and lightweight transport protocol, but using it required engineers to specify their own payload technology. Enter Sparkplug. I call it a sort-of OPC-light (but people get mad at me for saying that). 

Sparkplug has been developed as open source way for engineers to standardize their messages from IIoT devices to databases.

The Eclipse Foundation, one of the world’s largest open source software foundations, in collaboration with the Eclipse Sparkplug Working Group, announced that the Sparkplug 3.0 specification has been published as an International Standard. This publication is the outcome of a transposition of the specification through the Publicly Available Specification (PAS) transposition process offered by the ISO and IEC Joint Technical Committee (JTC 1) for information technology, a consensus-based, voluntary international standards group. 

The International Organization for Standardization and International Electrotechnical Commission (ISO/IEC) are global organisations that facilitate the development of International Standards that support innovation, sustainability, and global trade. Sparkplug is an open software specification that enables mission-critical operational technology (OT) clients to use industry standards, including OASIS MQTT, to seamlessly integrate data from their applications, sensors, devices, and gateways with most Industrial Internet Of Things (IIoT) infrastructure. As a result, Sparkplug enables businesses to easily deploy complex, mission-critical IIoT systems in record time.  

The PAS transposition process for reviewing and approving externally developed specifications at JTC 1 is neutral to all contributors and includes industry-wide participation. Going forward, the Sparkplug specification will also be known as ISO/IEC 20237. The Eclipse Foundation retains stewardship of the specification and intends to submit future revisions through the PAS transposition process. 

The Sparkplug Working Group is simultaneously launching a product compatibility program for Sparkplug implementers. The program will ensure that Sparkplug-compatible products and implementations demonstrate a high degree of compatibility and interoperability. 

Sparkplug provides an open and freely available specification for how Edge of Network (EoN) gateways or native MQTT-enabled end devices and MQTT Applications communicate bi-directionally within an MQTT Infrastructure. It is recognized that OASIS MQTT is used across a broad spectrum of application solution use cases and an almost indefinable variation of network topologies. 

By design, the MQTT specification does not dictate a Topic Namespace or any payload encoding. However, as the IIoT and other architectures leveraging the publisher/subscriber model are adopted by device OEMs in the industrial sector, having different Topic Namespace and payload encoding can inhibit interoperability for the end customer. To that end, the Sparkplug specification addresses the following components within an MQTT infrastructure: 

  • Sparkplug defines an OT-centric Topic Namespace 
  • Sparkplug defines an OT-centric Payload definition optimised for industrial process variables. 
  • Sparkplug defines MQTT Session State management required by real-time OT SCADA systems.

The Eclipse Foundation provides our global community of individuals and organisations with a business-friendly environment for open source software collaboration and innovation. We host the Eclipse IDE, Adoptium, Software Defined Vehicle, Jakarta EE, and over 425 open source projects, including runtimes, tools, specifications, and frameworks for cloud and edge applications, IoT, AI, automotive, systems engineering, open processor designs, and many others. Headquartered in Brussels, Belgium, the Eclipse Foundation is an international non-profit association supported by over 350 members.

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