Open Automation: Where Things Stand in 2024

Jan. 30, 2024
With plenty of activity at Open Process Automation Forum and UniversalAutomation.org, the pieces are slowly falling into place to develop an ecosystem of products that support multi-vendor automation architecture and standards.

For decades, the OT world has had to navigate the challenges of proprietary systems and  vendor lock-in as they pined for solutions modeled on the open standards and  interoperability precedents that are so well-established in the IT domain.

While the tide has not exactly turned, there are signs that open automation standards and  technologies are starting to fall in line. Evolving standards work, numerous industry  partnerships and new vendor technologies are coalescing to raise manufacturers’ hopes for  a more flexible environment that is simpler and less costly to manage than conventional  automation platforms while also more appealing to a younger generation of software and  process automation engineers.

The contours of open automation have been floated for years, but a more finely tuned  concept began to take shape from work initiated at ExxonMobil to create a next-generation,  multi-vendor automation architecture that would free industrial companies from the  interoperability constraints associated with closed, proprietary systems. Those traditional  automation platforms often require companies to invest in expertise and resources to  maintain multiple automation suppliers, and legacy systems stay operational far longer  than they should because switching costs are high. 

In conventional environments, any form of reuse is off the table, which means companies  are constantly rewriting software applications and process control functions for every  project as well as when specific systems reach end of life. The inability to reuse or easily  implement best-in-class products also detracts from companies’ ability to transform and  modernize, including leveraging Industrial 4.0 technologies like cloud, artificial intelligence  and data analytics.

The burden of this upgrade cycle became too much for Exxon, and the groundwork laid at  the oil giant was made public in 2016 and became the foundation for standards activity  underway by the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF), a subgroup with The Open  Group global consortium. In addition to OPAF’s evolving O-PAS Standard, now at version  2.1, there are other developments percolating at non-profit groups as well as individual  vendor companies to create an ecosystem of portable, interoperable “plug and produce”  industrial automation standards and technologies. The goal is to lower the cost of control  system upgrades and total cost of ownership, to design security into systems at scale, and  to remove any barriers to integrating new technologies that will be the catalyst for next- generation digital advantage.

“End users want more freedom—they want to be able to choose from best-in-class  offerings and move from vendor A to vendor B if that company has a better solution,” says  Aneil Ali, forum director of OPAF. “They don’t want to be limited to only what vendor A has  to offer.”

2024 seems poised for efforts that could spring talk about open automation standards into  genuine product-related action. “So far, there’s been a lot of paper writing with the [O-PAS]  standard at well over 1,000 pages,” Ali says. “But you can’t make [product] with 1,000  pieces of paper so where we are now, and the theme of 2024, is certification. It's all about  productizing the standard and operationalizing the certification program so we can see in- market products that support the standard.”

O-PAS on the rise

O-PAS, positioned as a “standard of standards,” is being developed to be inclusive of  brownfield assets, which means any hardware or software standards that exist today that  have relevance to the mission are being integrated within the body’s work, Ali says. To  date, more than 125 organizations and standards initiatives have played a role in the  development of O-PAS, which includes use of the DMTF Redfish API for out-of-band system  management, PLCopen and IEC 61131-3 for harmonizing programming standards for PLCs,  and OPC UA for use as the standard connectivity component. 

ExxonMobil still leads the open automation field with both test bed and prototype efforts  underway as well as a field trial deployment. Saudi Aramco, Shell and Petronas are also  actively pursuing O-PAS test bed trials. There is also significant activity taking place outside  the oil and gas sector, including at BASF, Georgia Pacific and Dow Chemical. “Any industry  with batch or continuous processes—such as those manufacturing paint, pulp,  pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, mining or metals—are good candidates,” Ali says.

While there are currently no available automation or controls products that are O-PAS  certified, Ali expects that to change as testing and certification efforts are developed and  operationalized over the coming year. He also expects existing standards organization  partners to help pick up the pace as it relates to certifying O-PAS-supported products that  align with their particular specialty domains. “We are leveraging the existing certification  labs for standards that are referenced in the O-PAS standard,” Ali explains. 

Don Bartusiak, former chief engineer for process control at ExxonMobil who laid the  groundwork for open automation standards and solutions work, is continuing to champion  multivendor automation architectures and believes the industry is finally on the cusp of  change. Bartusiak is helping to evolve the O-PAS standard through his work at  Collaborative Systems Integration, which offers consulting services for the design and  integration of O-PAS systems as well as through the Coalition of Open Process Automation  (COPA), a partnership program formed by CSI and CPLANE.AI to bring together IT and OT  technology vendors to create commercial control systems based on O-PAS. 

The COPA QuickStart system is a commercially available product bundled with a training  program that helps manufacturers start learning and adopting open architecture solutions  into their operations. Customers opt for a range of simulated process control applications  such as a fired heater or fed-batch fermentation process, and the system helps them learn  how to configure database tags, control blocks, and HMI displays as well as other test and  optimization functions. CSI serves as the system integrator for that offering, and COPA  partners include companies like Phoenix Contact, R. Stahl, SuperMicro and Codesys. The  goal is to promote experimentation, not serve as a commercialized offering for production,  Bartusiak said.

In the early pilots demonstrated by CPLANE.ai and ExxonMobil, standards including O-PAS,  OPC-UA, DMTF Redfish, and IEC 61499 were leveraged to demonstrate automation of  provisioning, initiation and lifecycle management of an open architecture, multi-vendor  control system. BASF has a demonstrator version of an O-PAS system that includes a water  tank, heaters and coolers, and Georgia Pacific has a portable demonstrator as well. “We’ve  demonstrated a novel cybersecurity solution that can’t be done with current control  systems and exhibited a scenario where system upgrades are done on a component basis  rather than a whole system basis,” Bartusiak explained. “Each one of these demonstrations  and testbeds showcase what can be accomplished with systems built in conformance to O- PAS.”

Taking a software-centric view 

Outside of the O-PAS standard and test beds, pieces of the open automation vision are  materializing in new vendor offerings as well as through other collaborative efforts. One of  the more notable is UniversalAutomation.org, an independent, non-for-profit association,  which is managing the implementation of a shared source runtime execution engine based  on the IEC 61499 standard. The organization is positioned not as an alternative to O-PAS or  the work being done at OPAF, but rather as a complementary effort designed to decouple  automation hardware from software. The intention is to enable an ecosystem of portable,  interoperable, “plug and produce” technologies that will empower customers to select the  best product for the job regardless of vendor while also making it easy to couple real-time  plant floor automation systems with enterprise applications managed by IT.

Rather than creating a new standard, UniversalAutomation.org is managing a reference  runtime implementation of the IEC 61499 standard on a shared source basis, which allows  one or multiple applications to be run on one device or distributed to multiple resources.  “O-PAS is designing a data model using existing standards and we, as UniversalAutomation,  are the technology enabler of those standards,” said Greg Boucaud, UniversalAutomation’s  chief marketing officer. “The nature of the technology is fundamentally object- and asset- oriented so you program a device as an asset, not in a controller-centric way. It enables  portability of an application independently of the hardware platform so that users aren’t  tied to a single vendor.”

Currently, there are nearly 70 member organizations participating in UniversalAutomation  and about a dozen supported offerings based on the shared automation runtime, including  ruggedized PCs, IoT controllers, industrial edge gateways and PLCs. ExxonMobil has been  using the UAO runtime execution engine in an OPAF test bed since 2018 and Cargill is using  the solution to decouple its application library from vendor platforms, Boucaud noted.

Schneider Electric is one of the founding members of UniversalAutomation.org and one of  the first to support its vision through EcoStruxure Automation Expert (EAE), an IEC 61499  software-centric industrial automation system used to design, deploy and manage  industrial control systems. Applications written with EAE can execute directly in intelligent  devices, and the same scalable run-time platform can be executed on everything from a  Raspberry Pi device to a blade server.

“Now, customers can take advantage of the best-in-class products on the factory floor and if  a new drive comes out with another feature they want to utilize, they can replace it with a  universal automation drive, take the same software and deploy to that drive,” explains Lou  Arone, U.S. manager of systems architecture expert team for Schneider Electric’s industrial  automation business. Moreover, EAE’s asset-centric and drag-and-drop approach is more  appealing to younger talent who are unfamiliar with legacy PLC programming conventions  while also providing a simpler framework to bridge IT and OT environments.

Siemens is also working to strike the right balance between its traditional proprietary  system approach and new technologies and standards that deliver on the vision of open  automation. Siemens is a member of OPAF, markets a variety of products that are certified  compliant with the OPC UA standard for streamlined machine-to-machine communication,  and has released Simatic AX, which introduces software development mechanisms to the  world of industrial automation. Among the capabilities are a native Git integration for  version control, remote connectivity to Simatic PLCs, and an integrated development  environment based on Visual Studio code.

“We’re bringing IT workflows to engineering OT devices like PLCs,” said Luis Narvaez,  product manager for controllers for factory automation at Siemens. “It doesn’t mean  traditional engineering software is going away—we’re just introducing different paths for  workers who are more comfortable with IT workflows, interoperability and convergence.”

To accelerate the transition, companies need to start learning about open automation  concepts and standards activity, engage the right stakeholders to drill down into the  problems that actively need solving, and target demonstrator technology at a small-scale  pilot project. As testbeds take root and products are certified, companies must make the  effort to specify open automation standards as required specifications when orchestrating  requests for proposals, Ali said. 

“Open automation requirements need to be in the bid specs,” he added. “If we continue to  ask for what we’ve gotten for the past 30 to 40 years, we’ll continue to get the same thing.  We have to ask for something different.”