Tips for incorporating open automation into your control system

Feb. 12, 2020
Open automation systems can provide a few significant advantages over closed systems, especially in cases where managers need to coordinate a variety of devices, or multiple systems need to communicate with each other. 
About the author: Megan Ray Nichols

In modern industrial facilities, control systems coordinate more individual devices and processes than ever—in some cases, managing systems that rely on minute-to-minute data from vast Internet of Things (IoT) fleets. When planning industrial automation, selecting which methods to use to organize automation can be a critical early step. In some cases, systems engineers rely on proprietary or closed systems that reduce the need for planning, but are also less flexible—working best only with vendor-specific devices and systems.

An increasingly popular alternative to these options is open systems. Below, we'll cover open automation—what it is, the benefits it can provide and ways that engineers can incorporate them into their automation process.

What is open automation?

As in systems with hundreds or thousands of I/O points, like facilities with complex IoT networks, system engineers need to find ways to coordinate and manage hundreds of different devices that are almost continually collecting data and performing tasks. 

Open automation exists on open systems—platforms designed to operate on or coordinate devices, regardless of their vendor. They speak with other systems whose designs are guided by the same standards. These open programs typically work off of well-known and consistently updated standards established or verified by trusted organizations. Experts often describe them in contrast with closed systems, which can't communicate with or have less flexibility in how they speak to other systems.

These systems are vendor-neutral and compatible with a wide variety of industrial systems and technology—like devices responsible for machine monitoring, safety network and distributed control systems.

Benefits of open systems in industrial automation

Open systems provide a few different advantages compared with closed or proprietary systems, as developers did not create them with interoperability and inter-system communication in mind.

All devices that process data, including industrial controllers—like PLCs, PACs and so on—need to run on some form of operating system. Using an open OS, or working with a vendor who has based their own proprietary system on an open OS, can ensure better or simpler system interoperability and communication.

With open systems, it's often possible to mix and match open solutions. For example, organizations can operate an IoT fleet made up of devices from different vendors, each of which may provide their own IoT platform or automation solution. Ideally, this setup can reduce the cost and labor involved with integrating multiple systems. Plus, it will give IT and engineering staff who work with these solutions more power and control, as well as flexibility in when new systems or functionality need adding.

With open systems, engineers and system managers can avoid relying on proprietary solutions for systems automation. This factor can be an advantage in situations where multiple systems or devices from several vendors need to work together. Proprietary systems, by comparison, often only work best with vendor equipment and systems. As a result, it may not always be easy or possible to use other systems in unusual ways.

For example, in facilities where process control and environmental controls are highly linked, system designers may need to integrate two systems they wouldn't usually link. In situations like in food production, where inconsistent environmental conditions can negatively impact the process, finding a way for building and process control systems to talk with one another can be essential in meeting product quality standards.

Two vendor-specific systems coordinating certain devices may be difficult or impossible to integrate well, making the overall network harder to organize. Open systems, however, provide managers with increased flexibility in how they design and automate their networks.

Experts can often program open systems and hardware using the tools they're most familiar with. For example, Opto 22's groov EPIC—an edge programmable industrial controller that is often a component of modern industrial IoT automation solutions—can be set up using most programming languages, as well as flow programming environments like Node-RED.

Integrating open systems

There are some challenges that facilities may face when integrating open systems. Depending on the size of the company behind the solution, there may not be a dedicated customer support team available. Conflicts between an open system and a unique piece of equipment might be harder to troubleshoot than issues between a vendor system and device.

In general, integrating and working with open systems may require more planning. With open systems, there probably won't be an all-in-one solution available, and you or your team will need to spend time planning what devices and controllers to use, as well as what technology will be needed to coordinate and automate functions.

Integrating open systems into industrial facilities

Modern industrial facilities need to coordinate vast systems and a large number of devices and industrial controllers. In some cases, proprietary networking technology and tools can be good enough to manage these systems. However, as the number and variety of devices increase, many system designers are looking to other solutions—like open systems—that provide more flexibility and come designed for inter-system communication.

These systems can provide a few significant advantages over closed systems, especially in cases where managers need to coordinate a variety of devices, or multiple systems need to communicate with each other. Open systems may, on the other hand, be harder to integrate than proprietary or closed systems. System designers and managers should be prepared to troubleshoot device communication on their own and face some road bumps when attempting to coordinate multiple open systems. 

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