DevCon 2007, which was held June 25 through June 28 in Scottsdale, Ariz., offered a first-hand look at demonstration products and deliverable technology based on the OPC Foundation’s ground-breaking Unified Architecture (UA) connectivity solution. In my keynote address, I remarked that the multiple man-years of development in this technology are now delivering the OPC vision of a platform independent, firewall-friendly and secure method of open data exchange among automation and information technology (IT) systems in manufacturing enterprises worldwide.
The conference, which was aimed at visionaries, engineers and end users in automation, attracted 146 delegates from more than 84 companies and 19 countries. Two and a half days of education delivered a detailed view of the Unified Architecture client/server solution that will bring unprecedented communications freedom between products and systems of all types.
Unified Architecture provides for a variety of operating system and language support, including Windows, Java, Microsoft’s .NET and C++. This means that servers can be as easily embedded in programmable logic controllers (PLCs) as in PC-based systems. Solution providers Kepware and Beckhoff demonstrated PLC applications. The Kepware server provided UA support for a ControlLogix PLC from Rockwell, while the Beckhoff demo showed UA running on a Beckhoff PLC. An ICONICS client application drew data from both of these servers in real time during the demo.
Building on more than 10 years field experience, OPC Foundation speakers explained how the Unified Architecture vision enables data from process and discrete manufacturing lines to be accessed from anywhere in the enterprise. Using “services-based” communications, both horizontal and vertical connectivity is possible, enabling plant monitoring, management and maintenance to be carried out transparently across local and wide-area networks. Firewalls no longer pose a barrier because eXtensible Mark-up Language (XML) and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP) are used to transport data, while a choice of two security processes guarantees high-integrity data. This means that disparate systems can communicate efficiently, reliably and safely across virtually any type of network, including the Internet.
Provides a Management View
One of the advantages of the OPC Unified Architecture is that it goes much, much further than traditional OPC Data Access (DA) solutions that typically are used for supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) and monitoring applications. For example, complex data structures can be transferred, allowing real “information” to be communicated instead of just raw data. One of the benefits is that management can now see more accurately what is happening inside their plants. Server “chaining” is possible, enabling purchasing and maintenance information to be gathered directly from multiple remote sites (e.g., OEM or device vendor companies), making plant and equipment repairs much simpler and faster. None of this is OS or platform dependent and it can all happen freely across the Internet if needed.
Collaboration with third party organizations and suppliers is another key advantage of the OPC Foundation’s strategy. We don’t want to re-invent the wheel, so we are building relationships with third parties where useful standards for enterprise applications, such as Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP), already exist. Some of these standards include ISA95, MIMOSA and OAGiS. In short, we believe that OPC provides enhanced technology for traditional SCADA and monitoring applications in automation, and the Unified Architecture delivers the genuine openness required for plant and enterprise applications.
At DevCon, OPC Foundation Technical Director, Jim Luth, noted that eight of the 11 Unified Architecture specifications are now published and available so that members, developers and end users can get prototype code for most UA options. The Early Adopter program has been running for over six months and the key “wrapper” solutions needed to assist migration are complete.
The Unified Architecture is on the cusp of delivering real benefits that OEMs, vendors and end users should now be taking seriously as an option for the future. We are barely a step away from real products, but what’s even more important is that OPC vendors and users don’t need to junk existing products. The OPC UA “wrapper” options make it easy to migrate legacy systems. We can all look forward to the time when widespread adoption becomes reality, and industry realizes the full benefits of interoperability between factory floor and the enterprise.
For more information, please visit the OPC Foundation web site at www.opcfoundation.org.