Monique Elliott and Andre Babineau

What’s Next? Open, Interoperable and Portable Systems

July 16, 2020
The concept of “plug and produce” will lead industry towards IT and OT integration.

The future of using digital innovation for reaching the next level of productivity will be limited without open, interoperable and portable applications.

That was the gist of a roundtable discussion presented by Schneider Electric’s Andre Babineau, and Monique Elliott, during Hannover Messe Digital Days (July 14-15), a digital conference focusing on topics such as Industry 4.0, artificial intelligence, smart energy and Logistics 4.0.

For one, the pair argued, established companies that were once immune from market changes, such as global economic disruption and headwinds from the pandemic, are being challenged by newcomers who are embracing agility and the new capabilities of the digital world. 

“It's been a wake-up call,” said Elliot, senior vice president, Industrial Automation, Global Marketing and Strategic Projects, pointing to the industrial manufacturing industry’s conservative legacy, which has to date been constrained by the digital economy.

Automation systems, which have for the past 20 years spurred the industry to achieve high levels of productivity, are reaching their limits, “because nothing has changed to the fundamentals of the systems,” argued Babineau, marketing director, Next-Generation Industrial Automation Incubator. 

“The pressure to transform to a world where automation control systems are designed for flexibility and adaptability is being felt by stakeholders across all corners of the industry,” said Elliott, who prompted her colleague to expound on the idea that end users are seeing their current automation systems as a cost barrier, rather than seeing it as an enabler and a source of profit.

Following are three takeaways from Babineau’s response. 

1. Decouple Hardware and Software

Today, many systems and applications are designed for and are dependent on a specific set of hardware, or specific vendor’s hardware. According to Babineau, these systems cannot be ported when it’s time to use another vendor, and for many customers this limitation means a redesign or redo of their IP when they need to change systems. “What is required is the ability to port and preserve the IP when transferring to a new system—as the technology evolves and becomes available,” he said. “In summary, what we need to do is really decouple software applications from the under architecture or hardware architecture.”

A key element in advancing the decoupling of IT and OT (operational technology) so the two sides are more interoperable and flexible, is the OPC UA (unified architecture) and the emergence of the IEC 64199 standard for modeling a distributed automation information system. IEC 61499 enables an asset-centric design and enables the hardware to become agnostic. “By decoupling from the hardware, this application can be distributed across any type of device with zero effort or zero reconfiguration from a customer perspective, allowing them to have a fit-for-purpose strategy,” Babineau explained.

2. Standardize and Conform

While the PLC community has benefited from conformance standard IEC 1131 (also known as IEC 61131) for industrial automation, the industry continues to suffer from a lack of conformance because vendors tend to have their own implementation solutions. The lack of standardization makes it difficult for customers to specify conformance or to review competence against different standards, said Babineau. “You’re never 100% sure that you’ll meet the portability and interoperability challenge,” he said. He added that this is not the case in the IT world, where reference implementations can be used as a standard for validating portability.

3. Integrate IT and OT

While standards have been around for 20 to 25 years, they have not necessarily evolved at the same speed as IT-driven innovation such as artificial intelligence or machine learning. These technologies are not integrated in a way that ensure implementations can evolve over time.

In Babineau’s view, a strong integration between IT and OT (operational technology) systems is needed. He pointed to an example: “In the IT world standardized open operating systems such as Linux encourage an active and broad ecosystem of developers to create a portfolio of innovative software solutions that solve fairly specific business problems at a low cost. But this type of environment does not exist currently in the industrial automation world.”

NAMUR, the international user association of automation technology and digitalization in process industries, provides a prototype for integrating modular automation processes that can increase flexibility in production. NAMUR MTP (module type packages) exploits the concept “plug and produce,” said Babineau. “They might explore, for example, how to insert a new reactor—reactor A—into a production line to produce product A, then remove reactor A and put in reactor B to produce product B. This would be a system that operates without touching any configuration; it is simply plug and produce.”

This concept would help match specific production requirements without changing any application codes, and provides a way for the customer to be more flexible while addressing their specific needs.

According to Babineau, the next generation of manufacturing and production operations should be centered on open-platform software, where multiple production models can come together to provide the best fit for the operation of the customer, the constraints of digitalization, the IEC 61499 standard and OPC UA (unified architecture) for communication.

“The data model makes such open systems a possibility,” Babineau affirmed. “The Age of Plug and Produce Industrial Automation is upon us.”

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