The Open Process Automation Journey Continues

In January, a business guide explaining the value proposition of an open process control framework was delivered. That is soon to be followed by a technical reference model, configuration architecture and field trials.

It was just over a year ago that the Open Process Automation Forum officially launched as a vendor-neutral technology consortium. Its mission is to provide a collaborative environment where members can work to create standards for a technology framework from which agile, secure and manageable automation systems can be specified, built, purchased and operated.

This initiative, which began with a major nudge from ExxonMobil years earlier, is an effort to rally suppliers and end users from a variety of industries around the need to develop an open process control framework that would supplant the closed proprietary control systems that stifle innovation and options due to vendor lock-in.

A year ago, the group outlined four key areas that the consortium would tackle, including understanding industry value-chains and business models, developing a standard that will deliver the interoperability and application portability that end-users are seeking, developing a conformance program to make it easy to identify products that comply with the standards created by the forum, and promoting global adoption of the agreed upon standards.

A year later, this past January, they tackled the first deliverable with the publication of the Open Process Automation Business Guide, which outlines the value proposition and business case for the development of the Open Process Automation standard. It essentially answers the question every end user, supplier and integrator is asking. “Why should I care?”

I asked that very question to Eugene Tung, director of IT for Merck and one of the authors of the new business guide, and, more specifically, why he is so involved in this effort. Here’s his response:

“I started my career as a control systems engineer and I had ideas about advanced control algorithms and models that I wanted to incorporate; but I was hindered by the closed proprietary nature of the control systems,” Tung said. “So, I found myself more of an API engineer than an advanced control engineer. I felt the development of a standard across the process control community would inject more innovation.”

And, he said, this is not just a personal expedition, but an undertaking that is supported by Merck’s CIO who has stated that an open standard is one of few remaining levers for driving productivity. “And, my vice president personally believes OT and automation systems should evolve faster into the IT world,” Tung said noting that support from his CIO and VP has been critical in his involvement, as well.

The business guide is built to address common themes across industries. It explains how and where standard interfaces can be used to enable best-in-class technologies that minimize downtime, improve safety, reduce engineering hours and increase flexibility and speed to market. “We wanted to set up an environment where all players could look at the business guide and see the roles they play and then translate that into the future,” Tung said during a presentation at the ARC Industry Forum. It’s a future where every player can also prosper, Tung noted in a nod to the potential for new revenue models. “We see a value proposition for all in the future state.”

So, what’s next on the road to the future? According to other presenters at the ARC conference, there will be a technical reference model available in the second quarter of this year. It is not a system architecture, but a technical architecture that shows how components could interact together to build a system. Part two of the technical roadmap includes the configuration of the system so that all of the components understand the role they play. And part three will specify companion specifications designed to give portability of apps.

If you are an end user, this all probably sounds great. But suppliers may be a bit more frightened by the future. However, the developers of this system have said that the technology architecture defines specific interfaces, but there will still be a “black box” to house the vendor’s intellectual property—so that they still have something to sell.

A win-win? Well, we shall see how this will all take shape, as several end users are starting parallel field trials of the open system architecture very soon.

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