Information reigns

Nov. 15, 2017
The process automation cloud relies on FieldComm Group technologies

It seems that everyone is talking about the fourth industrial revolution—Industrie 4.0, the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and connecting the plant floor to the cloud. As a result, we’re seeing a fog of alternative technologies and standards competing for the attention of engineers, manufacturers and vendors, and rightfully so, as the ability to gather and analyze information is key to driving increased value in process manufacturing.

But regardless of where the data ends up, much of it must come from the plant floor and at the interface between the process and the IT networks. There, says Scott Saunders, president and CEO, Moore Industries, “Our job is to provide customers with data and the capability of smart instruments to support predictive modeling, asset management and reduced calibration.” This is where you find Foundation Fieldbus, HART and FDI technologies.

Shared data, leveraged resources

For remote applications, “It’s very easy to add cloud connectivity for visibility into device health, to be sure everything is working,” says David Lincoln, digital leader, measurement and analytics business unit, ABB. “In the control system environment, a local cloud is useful for data gathering, analysis and local trending. For example, tracking how many times a valve opens and closes is a low-cost addition. Then you can share valve operating data with one valve expert across the organization, or with a vendor service technician sitting miles away, through the cloud.”

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“We make the data available, and the customer decides how to use it,” Saunders says. “Most use an intranet for IIoT, not an immediate jump to the cloud over the Internet, due to security concerns. That’s their responsibility, they can decide that technology. Our next two or three products will have Ethernet running Modbus TCP, Ethernet IP or HART-IP. We make IP available to them, they decide how high they want to go. OPC UA? XML? It’s up to them.”

For field instruments outside a control system, “The cloud provides the connection and a technician can analyze the entire fleet,” says Neil Shah, product manager, control systems technologies, ABB.

Within a control system, with no additional connectivity or infrastructure, “Data may be locked into the system. We need to convert it to get it out to the experts for analysis,” Shah says. “For that, we can use device management tools.” FieldComm Group’s FDI technology is made for the job (p. S-13). Shah says, “FDI is open, and enables us to draw on data not just from ABB devices, not just from ones that are not already connected, and not just from a single source.”

Capabilities found traditionally in Foundation Fieldbus and HART portable communicators are now connecting to the cloud to save device configurations, share configuration data, perform automatic backups, and make the latest data and configurations equally as available remotely as they are locally. Saving trend data to the cloud allows users to troubleshoot device issues with colleagues anywhere in the world, and gives global access to process performance data.

“Our DevCom2000 Smart Device Communicator and our DevCom Apps all support HART-IP. This allows access to all HART devices in the network through an Ethernet connection to the WirelessHART gateway. The user can download HART device configurations and make parameter changes,” says Jeff Dobos, president, ProComSol. “Now we’re adding functionality for online use. You can view the entire network hierarchy on one screen showing measurement values, device status, and record and store the data locally or in the cloud.”

“Our software also can save trend data—for any period you want—to the cloud to share with colleagues all over the world, ” Dobos says. “You can do it from the office or home, you don’t need to go into the plant.”

OPC UA delivers data everywhere

For a significant group of suppliers, the default solution for connecting disparate devices, packages and systems is OPC UA. “The big thing right now is OPC. It’s a big, open platform for Ethernet and the Internet,” says Saunders.

As part of a continuing partnership between the OPC Foundation and FieldComm Group, the OPC UA information model is a part of the framework upon which FDI is built. “This allows complex information rendered in device package to be seamlessly communicated to disparate applications and devices,” says Tom Burke, president and executive director, OPC Foundation. It allows a generic application to connect to the corresponding device or host application and consume data without any knowledge of the underlying protocol of the device. Much like plug and play in the consumer electronics business.

“End users consistently tell us that they have no interest in replacing their field devices,” says Ted Masters, CEO of FieldComm group. This is hardly surprising given the large installed based (40 million or more units) and long lifecycle of field instrumentation. Technologies like FDI and OPC UA allow for creation of “digital twins” for the field instrumentation that can then be mapped into a variety of application formats. Masters continues, “When we give management presentations, our computers probably have three or four different ways of connecting to a projector. Most users don’t care if VGA, HDMI, DVI, or wireless connections are used, as long as the image on the computer is rendering properly by the projector. It’s the same in process automation. Many, slightly different, protocols will continue to operate in plants worldwide, but the information delivered by those protocols must be standardized for consumption by all process applications. This is the ultimate goal of the FDI and OPC UA information models.”

Cloud connects via OPC

On the cloud side, evidence that OPC UA is the key to field-to-cloud connectivity comes from Microsoft. “We’ve been investing quite heavily in platform for Industrie 4.0, Made in China 2020 and the IIoT,” says Erich Barnstedt, software engineering lead, Microsoft. “My team owns the industrial vertical for Azure IoT, and OPC UA is the only open industrial protocol we support to bring data to the cloud and all its services. All the back-end services understand OPC UA. And OPC UA is open-source, which is a big change. Supporting open-source is a winning strategy.
“Everything is gravitating to OPC UA, and we want everyone to support it.”

Instead of having many protocols to provide and support, it’s just one OPC UA interface. “It takes less than a week to become compatible with a huge number of devices,” Barnstedt says. “FieldComm Group offers an entire ecosystem of devices compatible with FDI technology. It’s protocol independent and allows my group to simply support OPC UA.

“At the NAMUR conference [in November], they’ll have a joint demo using OPC UA to connect FieldComm Group technologies to Microsoft Azure, showing how you can quickly get insights into machine data from the cloud with a few clicks.”

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