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FDT evolves for the Industry 4.0 era

May 16, 2022

The FDT integration standard first came into being as a means to deal with all aspects of device configuration and diagnostic data generated by smart process instruments—and to help end users better manage a diverse range of increasingly intelligent assets. And while FDT originally stood simply for “Field Device Tool,” over the past 20 years it has evolved in both scope and functionality.

In its current iteration as FDT UE, for Unified Environment, based on FDT version 3.0, it provides a platform-independent, web-enabled environment for managing and monitoring instrumentation and all manner of Industrial IoT devices across process, hybrid and discrete manufacturing domains. To better understand the ongoing evolution of FDT and its increased relevance in the age of Industry 4.0, Control caught up with Steve Biegacki, FDT Group managing director.

Q: FDT is viewed as the de facto industry standard for industrial device integration, configuration and monitoring with millions of DTMs, or Device Type Managers, delivering data access to FDT host environments via FDT 1.2 and 2.0 iterations of the standard. How can users be confident that the current FDT 3.0—the foundation for FDT Unified Environment—is the right standard for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and Industry 4.0 applications?

Steve Biegacki

Managing Director, 
FDT Group

A: One of the biggest reasons is that the Unified Environment—and FDT 3.0 on which it’s based—were developed centered on user input. It's not a vendor-driven standard; the requirements came from the user community. As a result, FDT UE represents an open, future-proof architecture for not just process instruments but for the IIoT. Older versions of the standard operated more like a digital screwdriver, providing a single user view and the ability to configure process instruments. But the new FDT UE is a server-based, distributed architecture that's operating system, device and network connection agnostic. It enables true integration of diverse products from multiple vendors across multiple networks using digital tools based on a variety of operating systems.

Central to the FDT UE offering is a server that effectively glues the IT and OT worlds together. On the “top" side are services that speak OPC UA to IT systems, as well as web services (such as HTML5) to mobile devices. And on the “bottom" side are services that speak the full range of OT field network protocols needed to communicate with today’s mix of instruments and IIoT devices.

Another challenge we heard about was how many different places users had to go to find DTMs (Device Type Managers) for their different devices. Users want an experience that today more closely resembles connecting a PC to a new printer. So, FDThub provides a behind-the-scenes repository of all the necessary DTMs that contain all the device parameters. When a new device is connected, the necessary DTM driver and other parameters are automatically and transparently installed. It’s just a much more contemporary way to approach things.

Q: How do end users go about bringing legacy systems forward to FDT UE, and what's the value proposition for doing so?

A: One of the great things about FDT’s legacy is that there are tens of millions of DTMs installed out there, devices designed to communicate according to FDT 1.2 or 2.0. The good news is, as people see benefits in moving forward to the Unified Environment, all those DTMs out there today will work in the new environment. You don't have to change out the devices to have them work. Then, it's up to the user to decide when they want to take advantage of mobility or the enhanced security that's part of the Unified Environment. So, nobody is forced to do anything. It's a migration path that makes new things possible—and can be pursued when the time is right.

Q: Integration, configuration and monitoring are some of the core strengths of FDT. How do these features differ, or how have they evolved with FDT UE?

A: One of the most noticeable changes is to the user interface. It’s now browser-based, allowing a common, consistent look-and-feel no matter what type of device you're on. So, if you have a maintenance person out in the field with a tablet and somebody back in the control room looking at the operator console, they're going to see the same information in real-time. The new FDT UE standardizes mobility.

I think the other big difference is that data coming from the devices themselves is now more readily available to the IT world. The FDT Server includes an embedded OPC UA server and OPC for FDT Universal Information Model that can publish and serve uniform data to higher-level systems used for asset management, manufacturing execution or other purposes. Live FDT data can also be served to other applications such as AI-assisted analytics.

Q: FDT’s original market sector of focus is process automation, where integration, configuration and monitoring are central concerns. Are there other strengths of FDT that make it appealing to factory automation environments?

A: We focused on three areas with specific relevance to factory automation in the 3.0 specification for end-users as well as device developers in this arena. One is a focus on configuring intelligent devices used in factory automation, via intelligent photo-eyes or variable-frequency drives, for example. We can provide DTMs that describe how those devices work. We also enable hybrid environments where process and factory automation systems work together. The third area is configuring devices that are independent of any network or device representation. The standard now addresses a whole alphabet soup of different data descriptors created by other standards at one time or another. So again, truly providing a unified environment.

Q: When specifying a universal device management solution as part of a project, how do users go about specifying FDT UE when requesting proposals?

A: It’s actually pretty simple. As they do their design work, they should specify that they'd like their devices and/or their system to be FDT 3-compatible to get the benefits of the UE environment.

Q: Some of FDT Group’s messaging is that FDT UE “empowers innovative business models for smart manufacturing.” All buzzwords aside, what does this really mean to system and device vendors? And what are the innovative outcomes for end users?

A: First, the FDT Unified Environment allows device vendors to provide more services and more value to their end-user customers. The vendors themselves can facilitate predictive analysis based on the health of their devices, and be more proactive about helping users manage plant uptime and utilization. From an end-user standpoint, they can now use DTMs to shorten the cycle time from system concept through design and operations. Plus, they can use a device’s DTM to effectively model its performance before they buy a piece of hardware. Building a digital twin based on DTM data can help optimize system designs and bring them to reality more quickly.

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