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FDT pulls it all together

June 8, 2022
The well-known integration standard gears up for platform-independent, web-based monitoring, management and configuration of IIoT devices

A job well-done can spark invitations for more work, but it can also pull competent individuals and organizations into some new and unusual areas where they have to make changes. As usual, even successful evolution is always a challenge.

For instance, the FDT Group and its longstanding, well-known device integration tool has been instrumental in linking devices and process applications, so they can work together more effectively. However, it’s also being reshaped by the sheer gravity of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Industry 4.0 and other forms of digitalization. These forces are transforming FDT into a unified standard for device integration, configuration and monitoring, which can operate in an embedded hosting environment via any network. This lets it run its Device Type Managers (DTMs) and any other device representation (DD, EDD, FDI, IODD, GDS, etc.) using any IT networks, OT protocols or mixed topologies to perform functions, such as data visualization and process monitoring.

“FDT isn’t a network or communications protocol. It’s a hub that centralizes and allows access to data,” says Suriya Selvaraj, technology VP at FDT Group.

While it isn’t a protocol, FDT complements data-gathering strategies like OPC UA and others. “FDT builds a bridge from devices at levels 0 to 3.5 of the seven-layer OSI network reference model to the application layer at Level 3.5 and above, where OPC UA is located,” explains Steve Biegacki, managing director of FDT Group. “We believe FDT advances OPC UA because it’s not as resource-intense and can perform configuration. Most recently, our new FDT (3.0) Unified Environment (UE) architecture provides a hybrid approach to the reference model. In its new server environment, data runs parallel to the application layer, which lets FDT UE provide an IIoT data hub, allowing IT/OT data flows, distributed control and security. FDT UE via an FDT server is a single-server solution that natively hosts prewired OPC UA and web servers."

Device types reach further out

Selvaraj reports that FDT was initially developed 20 years ago by several suppliers as a field device tool/device type manager (FDT/DTM) desktop application for standardizing device connections and data parameters in a hosted environment, and grew to be widely accepted because it provided software-based representations of components. In 2012, FDT 2.0 migrated to client-server applications at the host level, which enabled DTM drivers to separate business logic in the user interface (UI), and allowed distributed environments for data. This evolution continued as FDT 3.0 was launched in 2020, and added mobile and web-based capabilities.

“We went platform-independent,” says Selvaraj. “FDT is no longer tied to Microsoft Windows, and can be used on any platform, such as Linux, Windows or MacOS.”

This new freedom allowed FDT 3.0 to introduce a new FDT Server software-based component. The organization reports FDT 3.0 lets users implement IIoT by combining OPC UA integration, web services and control network interoperability. It’s a single-server solution with three parts that include:

  1. FDT 3.0 specification defines the rules for how devices and hosts seamlessly connect and communicate to allow integration, configuration, monitoring and mobility;
  2. FDT Server and DTM Common Components toolset for FDT hosting and device DTM with common libraries, such as toolkits containing APIs and other software; and
  3. FDThub where users can access certified device DTMs from an online/offline repository to ease management and updates.

“FDT 3.0 isn’t a specification because it can include other functions. Suppliers can develop products and services with common components, implement DTMs, servers, desktops and apps, and get them to market faster,” explains Selvaraj. “If users want, they can collect 1,000 DTMs, and an FDT 3.0 environment can create a central repository, such as FDThub as a DTM repository or Core Server as an IT/OT data hub, which can also serve as a host for devices and do it automatically. Because FDT 3.0 includes IIoT, it also lets users integrate IT and OT.”

So far, FDT 3.0 has been applied and is managing devices in two pilot projects, including a major oil company and a hybrid CPG manufacturer. In these settings, FDT 3.0 can:

  • Remember where configuration parameters are stored;
  • Replace devices and re-download parameters;
  • Assist mobility by showing consistent data parameters in multiple locations via a standardized UI; and
  • Enable IT/OT data analytics, with cloud-computing services, which puts the standard into digital practice.
Journey to the center of FDT

Figure 1: The newly released FDT Unified Environment (UE) is based on the FDT 3.0 integration standard, and uses a core server as an IIoT data hub for the FDT server, as well as enabling communications and coordination operations for a customer server for value-added functions, OPC UA server for IT-OT integration, web server for field devices, transport-layer security services, online/offline FDThub for accessing DTMs in one repository, and remote facility connections for accessing the FDT server. Source: FDT Group

Unify the environment

For its next accomplishment, FDT 3.0 is extending itself even further, and serving as the foundation for the organization’s newly released FDT (3.0) UE solution for designing, configuring and operating controls and devices in process, discrete and hybrid systems, such as DTMs in variable frequency drives (VFD) connected to a controller over any network (Figure 1).

“FDT 3.0 is a more contemporary architecture for storing DTMs and linking IT and OT. We’re agnostic and work with any protocol, such as OPC UA and HART, which takes us beyond typical network limits,” says Biegacki. “FDT is a truly specification- and user-driven organization. Vendors aren’t driving the specification. In the same way, Ethernet-Advanced Physical Layer (APL) is leveling the playing field for many users and applications, who are trying to create a faster physical layer for performing handshakes and achieving understanding between devices and distributed control systems (DCS).”

Biegacki reports it used to take a lot of technology to integrate DCSs, PLCs and other components because they had to talk the same language and agree on device rules. “We needed integration technology for sensors and other devices and controllers that could push their data up to the enterprise,” says Biegacki. “Many users and processes standardize on OPC UA, but FDT is in a position to integrate devices with a host, so we don’t care if it’s talking HART or something else. This lets components work with a DCS if they follow a few FDT rules. Next, the devices tell the controller they need data via the network they share, and FDT makes it available in a representational way, which enables IT/OT data conformity, management and access.

“With an OPC UA server built into an FDT Server, users can complete much of their IT/OT integration because FDT enables device configuration in a control system, and allows sharing configurations through OPC UA to the cloud. This defines the path for true field-to-cloud integration, which is extended by FDT UE that allows technologies, standards and users to unite. FDT UE provides the collaborative data solution that delivers real-time, data-driven insights into production and processes."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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