Islands in the Stream

March 26, 2008
Unless You’re Talking Vacation Destinations, Islands Conjure Up Images of Isolation and Communication Difficulties

By Eric Murphy, Columnist

In the industrial automation world, companies struggle with connecting various islands of information within their facilities.   Business agility requires real time access to data from all parts of the enterprise. OPC is used to transform islands of information into a world of knowledge.

"That is what we are “…

In the early eighties rapidly developing automation systems struggled with islands of automation as proprietary protocols hampered communication at the control layer. Standardized industrial communication protocols, such as Ethernet, Fieldbus and OPC greatly improved this level of integration. However as the speed of business increases, so too does the size if landscape where critical data is located. Decades later the island problem still exists but has evolved to mean islands of information in the sea of the enterprise.

“No One in-between “…

Companies have long understood the value of connecting the enterprise from one end to the other. This realization has lead to the development of higher level applications such as ERP systems. Implementation of these systems usually focused on first connecting typical office functions: financials, human resources, sales and marketing, supply chain and logistics. As companies continue to come under pressure to be more competitive and do more with less, they are looking for the manufacturing floor to be leaner and more agile in meeting customer demands. Making real time decisions requires reliable access to real time information. This means companies are looking for a standardized way to access data from the shop floor to the top floor. Over the years, OPC has become the one standardized protocol to bring connectivity to the islands of automation at the plant level. The new problem of connecting islands of information across the enterprise is solved by next generation of application interoperability, OPC-UA.

“How can we be wrong?”…

Companies all across the industry have the need to connect the business layer to the plant floor, although their reasons for doing so vary. For some it’s to improve efficiency or lower manufacturing costs by optimizing production.  For others it’s gaining access to real time data to achieve customer driven, just-in-time manufacturing instead of bulk production. And for some it’s a necessity imposed by regulatory compliance.  Regardless of the reasons, the need for interoperable connectivity is a given. Today countless manufacturing sites are using OPC to integrate applications within the plant or across multiple plants. The adoption of OPC-UA is allowing this integration to move up and across the enterprise.

“Sail away with me to another world “…

Islands can also conjure up images of blissful paradise. For the industrial automation world paradise is an integrated, interoperable enterprise. The OPC-UA specifications are implemented on a service base architecture, which leverages existing internet standards. This promotes the power of standard based connectivity across more layers of the enterprise. Service based models also allow OPC-UA to make use of standard security aspects such as authentication, encryption, data integrity and auditing. These are important features for companies facing increased security requirements, particularly when making connections to the control environment. 

In addition to unifying and being backward compatible with existing OPC systems, OPC-UA offers a rich information model to better transform the data into information.  OPC-UA represents a portfolio of services for real-time, historical and event based data that do not overlap or conflict in the message model. The flexible information model of OPC-UA allows for implementing multiple information relationships, resulting in an enterprise wide service model. These capabilities offer the promise of very powerful OPC-UA applications. The same flexible, secure interfaces could be available on smart transmitters, control system operator stations, data historians, maintenance databases and manufacturing execution system. 

“And we rely on each other”…

Meeting new industrial challenges will take more than integration islands of automation. It requires enterprise interoperation which holds the promise for more flexibility.  Standardization is the key to connecting the plant automation systems and business functionality. OPC-UA is a universal adapter, an overarching umbrella that allows one application to communicate with, and understand another application. Interoperability among the islands of information is critical to achieving operation excellence and business performance out of the streams of data.

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