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FDT for the Industry 4.0 era

May 6, 2022
Keith Larson speaks with Steve Biegacki, FDT Group managing director

The FDT integration standard first came into being as a means to deal with all aspects of multivendor device configuration and diagnostic data generated by smart process instruments. Over the years, it has evolved in both scope and functionality, and in its current iteration as FDT UE, 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. In this episode of Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast, Control magazine editor in chief Keith Larson discusses the ongoing evolution of FDT and its increased relevance in the age of Industry 4.0 with Steve Biegacki, FDT Group managing director.


Keith Larson: The FTD integration standard first came into being as a means to deal with all aspects of multi-vendor device configuration and diagnostic data generated by smart process instruments—and to help end-users better manage a diverse range of increasingly intelligent assets. Over the years though, FDT has evolved in both scope and functionality and in its current iteration as FDT UE, for unified environment, which is based on FDT version 3, 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.

Hello, my name is Keith Larson, editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com, and welcome to the Solution Spotlight episode of the Control Amplified podcast, today sponsored by FDT Group. Joining me today to discuss the ongoing evolution of FDT and its increased relevance in the age of Industry 4.0 is Steve Biegacki, FDT Group managing director.

Welcome, Steve. Great pleasure to talk with you, and congratulations on the relatively new responsibilities there at the FTD Group.

Steve Biegacki: Yeah. That's great, Keith. Thanks. I appreciate that and I appreciate the opportunity to be on the podcast today to talk about what's going on with FDT. And you're right, it is a relatively new role and clearly, I’ve got a lot to learn, but it's been fun getting started with things and at this kind of a point of transition within the FDT Group where the new standard and actually the different devices and the tools and so on to actually enable taking advantage of all the things that were created in the FDT organization and really building on the legacy that the organization has had. So, it's kind of cool to be involved as we move forward with the newest release of the standard and how the tools and the products related to that. So, the automation users can actually take advantage of that.

Keith: Yeah. It's stunning to think that the standard has been around for, what, 20 years, and I don't think we even knew what digital transformation or Industry 4.0, had any inkling of what was ahead 20 years.

Steve: Yeah, that's interesting. And it's actually got much cooler names now than it did back in the day when we were trying to figure out how to do it and what we were going to do. I even go back to some of my experiences back in the mid-'90s where like, well, yeah, we've been doing this forever. It's us. But yeah, it's definitely taken shape now, and I think a lot of the IT technology, quite frankly, helps us build much more contemporary things than we used to do in the past.

Keith: Yeah. It seems like some of the stuff, we were talking about it more than doing it back in the day, with computer integrated manufacturing and all those kinds of stuff, but I know the technology is catching up.

Steve: Yeah. For sure, is. For sure, is. I have to tell you one last thing, though, about just, and again, of about being here, which I think is really great is we've gotten tremendous support actually within the FDT Group and the people that I actually get to work with, and all of our working groups and our board of directors and the member companies. It's been really great and good to see as we move forward with this transition with FDT 3. So, it's been a great group to work with.

Keith: Great, and welcome back to dealing with the media. We didn't have podcasts back then either. So, yeah.

Steve: No, we didn't. That's kind of neat.

Keith: Well, just to jump into the subject matter at hand here, FDT is really viewed as kind of the de facto industry standard for industrial device integration, configuration, monitoring, and there are millions of DTMs, or just to translate for people who are not familiar, Device-Type Managers, out there in industry that are delivering data to host systems via older standards, the FDT 1.2 and 2.0 iterations of the standard. How can users be confident this current FDT 3.0, which is really the foundation of the UE or a unified environment is really the right standard for the next challenges of the industrial IoT and industry 4.0?

Steve: Yeah. Well, you know, I think one of the biggest reasons that people can be confident is the fact that the standard, specifically FDT 3.0, which is the basis, as you mentioned, for the unified environment was based on user input. There was a lot of work that was done, you know, obviously, prior to my time being involved with the group, but the organization did a really nice job of going off and really trying to understand what users were looking for and how they wanted to actually have access to their data. So, I think one of the unique things that I've noticed about the organization and being involved with it now is that how user-driven it was. It's not a vendor-driven standard. It's a user-driven standard. At least the requirements were coming from the user community. And as a result, it actually called out a number of different factors that users wanted. For example, being able to have the idea of open interoperable IIoT or Industrial Internet of Things architecture that were somewhat future-proof. And a lot of people use that term, future-proof. What the hell does that mean?

Well, the point is that in the older versions of the standard, it was usually a single user view of what was going on with the process instrumentation and the ability to configure, almost like an electronic screwdriver in a way, okay, to what was going on. And with the new architecture, it's actually based on a server-based distributed architecture that is operating system agnostic, device, network connection agnostic. So, supporting multiple protocols, and it is vendor-independent. Okay? So, the standard really enables kind of that true integration of multi-vendor products, multi-network products, multi-operating system products. So, we kind of took that piece or any restrictions that could have possibly been in the way. So, that's kind of missing out. And the idea of having multiple users now have access to the data. The path was kind of a single window and single view. Now, the data is more distributed through the architecture that's been developed here.

I think the other thing is that the idea to have the comprehensive control and configuration, basically, leveraging this idea of a server that's actually been created as part of this offering and part of the specification that glues the IT and the OT world together. It actually has a server that's part of it that combines both OPC UA to actually talk to the IT world. And then also, configuration, counter the devices through the different networks and different field level types of things that are there. So, really, trying to glue that together, I think, is something that users were looking for and allowing the data to be available in lots of different places.

And basically, what this does is this allows both IT and OT data harmonization, I guess I'd call it probably the best way, and connection with the IT and along with actually providing a web server. And so, we talked a little bit earlier about contemporary technologies and how things get done. I think the new spec is actually based on more contemporary-type technologies like that, like using, for example, a web server that actually empowers OT operations, which then does things like provides for mobility, right? Because those web browsers now can be used on mobile devices like handheld terminals and phones and things like that. Right? So, now the data is available across multiple platforms as a result, where before it was kind of a single view.

Keith: So, it's kind of moving towards that publish-subscribe top-end to go out to all kinds of different devices and systems...

Steve: Yeah, that's right.

Keith: ...whatever is on that side, which is...

Steve: Yeah, that's right. That's right. And making that just so much easier to actually have to deal with. And I guess the last thing is that one of the things, and I think one of the challenges we heard and I'm looking back through some of the notes and so on, was how many different places do I actually have to go look for information about the different devices? Like, why doesn't this work more like if you think about getting a new printer up to your computer, okay, you know, typically they'll go off and find the driver someplace and you don't have to do that. I mean, think about how that's changed through the years. We want to do the same thing with the devices. So, there is this piece of the architecture and the spec that actually calls out something called an FDT hub, which actually scores all those parameters. So, you don't have to go off and figure out, "Well, where do I actually find the description about this device?" It's automatically just going to be there for you. So, again, just a much more contemporary way to approach things.

Keith: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. So, for the many installations out there that have pre-existing FDT servers embedded in their technology or embedded in their systems, how do they go about bringing those systems forward to the unified environment and what's really the value proposition for undertaking that?

Steve: Yeah, that's a great question because one of the great things about the legacy is that there's tens of millions of DTMs installed out there, devices, right, that use the DTM of 1.2 or 2.0. Okay. So, what do I do about that? Well, the good news is that as people see benefits in moving forward to the unified environment, all those DTMs that are out there today will work in the new environment. Okay? So, that's kind of a good thing. You don't have to go off and necessarily change out all the devices to have them work as part of the environment. Now, the thing is, it's up to the user to decide, "Okay. When do I want to take advantage of, for example, mobility? When do I want to take advantage of some of the enhanced security that's part of the unified environment? When do I want to do that?" So, nobody is forced to go do anything. It's a migration path at the time that things are right. And as we think about it, right, a lot of the control equipment had long life cycles, seven to 10 years. I mean, you don't want to have people forced to change things out.

So, we're not forcing anybody to do that. But there is an ability to migrate all those devices that are in the field into the new environment when the users are ready to do that. So, that's one of the things to leverage and actually take advantage of that huge installed base and not have people do that. Now, people in the past have only used kind of a desktop version of FDT. Okay. The previous release is a server version, which is a new thing. So, again, if people see the benefit to moving to that server, multi-user version, they can go ahead and start moving in that direction when the time is right.

Keith: Okay. Yeah. I've been covering this whole Industrial IoT, Industrial 4.0 for quite a few years now, and one of the big issues is once you start adding more and more of these devices, how do you manage all those devices? But you've really extended the concept of FDT to handle that on behalf of the user community. Is that a fair way to put it?

Steve: Yeah, I think that's a great way to say it. And, again, I think that comes out of the fact that the requirements for the spec really came out of the user community. So, I think that's been a key thing.

Keith: So, for companies that want to add a lot of secondary sensors and things like that, the FDT, this unified environment would be a great add-on tool for managing that stuff.

Steve: Yep. Yep. That's for sure. Yep.

Keith: Integration, configuration, monitoring are some of the core strengths we've talked about for FDT. Have those features evolved further with this new unified environment in terms of the strengths and capabilities? Are there other new things to talk about?

Steve: Yeah, I think there's a few things, right? I think, and some of this I had mentioned, but just to make another point of this is this whole concept of having the user interface be actually part of something that users are familiar with now because it's browser-based. Okay? In the past, it was more just a fixed application. Now, it's much more browser-based, which allows a common look and feel no matter what type of device you're on. Okay. When you're looking at devices, I'm talking about from the kind of a host perspective, so, it's web-based. So, I think that's one of the things that just provides that consistent user interface. So, whether you have a maintenance person out with a handheld looking at a device or somebody back in the control room, they're going to see kind of the same thing about the health of the device, what's going on, some of the parameters that are set and so on that are defined as part of the universal information model. So, they're going to see consistency. I think that's one thing, right? Because of the web browser-based background technology.

I think the other thing, though, is that now the data that actually comes from the devices themselves is available to the IT world if you move, like, into a server environment where you're using the FDT server, which has an embedded OPC UA server in it. Okay? And now, that data is available to higher-level systems whether that be the MES system, asset management systems, whatever it might be. Okay. Ultimately, the ERP system. So, that's another thing I think. And the other thing is that there's common parameters that have been defined and standards around how this is displayed, for example, diagnostic data. Okay. We've moved some things to and here to some of the more standards for how they like to see data displayed, and so, everybody's got a common view of how that all looks now. So, I think those are the biggest things that are probably changed with this latest release.

Keith: Yeah, that makes sense. But it's not just the configuration data and diagnostics now, it's more and more looking at analytics and doing analytics through data supplied through the FDT server or the unified environment. Is that fair to say? Feeding into more actual analytics applications instead of just maintenance and configuration kind of things.

Steve: Yeah, it definitely is, which then can be used in other applications, which actually is one of the other pieces of this specification was this connection to other apps, whether it be artificial intelligence or actually even helping do design work. People can now model systems. If you think about things like digital twins and things like that where you can actually start to lay out the control system before you have the actual hardware in place. Right?

Keith: Yeah. That makes sense. Obviously, you're extending the scope beyond the traditional side of things with process automation. Are there particular features or strengths of FDT UE that make it appealing for more discrete manufacturing environments?

Steve: Yeah. I mean, I would say there are. I think there's probably three areas that I think we focused on in the specification and also the ability to develop products in this area. One is that we really focus on configuring intelligent devices used in factory automation. So, as our friends in Japan, like, always refer to it as there's FA applications and PA applications. Okay? So, you've got factory automation, which typically, some people would refer to it as, like, discrete applications. You think about stuff from a lot of my background, obviously, in my years in kind of the PLC business, we had a lot of different discrete devices whether they be intelligent photo eyes, variable-frequency drives, things like that. Those all can now have a DTM for those that describe how those work. So, we're not only focused, I guess, my point is, on only process instrumentation, we're also focused on creating DTMs for discrete or typically that factory automation type devices. Okay? The example I always used was the photo eye and trying to configure how that thing sensed, like, the operating dark, operating whatever it might be. There are parameters even at simple devices that have to be set up. Okay. So, that's one area.

And along with that, I think that we do enable then kind of this whole idea of the process automation and the factory automation that work together, which can be used to create hybrid systems. Okay? There are several customers, in fact, just recently since I've been involved with the organization that I've talked to that have these hybrid systems, right? And they're not traditional PCs folks necessarily, they're not traditional PLC folks. They're kind of someplace in the middle. They've got a mix of process and discrete devices, and they want to have one view into that system to see what's going on. And FDT 3 and the unified environment actually helped with that, which, by the way, was one of the ways we came up with kind of this unified environment name around it because it is truly a unified environment of both process and factory automation.

And then I think the third area, really, is around being able to configure devices that are independent of any network or device representation. So, for example, there are other standards where people define things. And there's a whole alphabet soup of different data descriptors, if you will, whether they're IODDs, or GSDs or EDs, and, of course, other DTMs, that the FDT UE standard actually incorporates all those different data types that other standards may have created at one time or another. So, again, truly providing a unified environment.

Keith: Makes a lot of sense. So, if some of our listeners are wanting to get a more universal device management solution as part of a upcoming line expansion or retrofit, how do they go about specifying FDT UE as part of the RFP process?

Steve: Yeah. So, it's actually pretty simple. If they put in their standard or their specification as they do their design work that they would like their devices and/or their system to be FDT 3, that's the spec, compatible, they will get the benefits of the UE environment. Okay? So, it's that simple, and I think there probably are folks that they really need to make their stuff, say, FDT 3 compatible.

Keith: Gotcha. Okay. Some of FDT Group's messaging around unified environment is that it empowers innovative business models for smart manufacturing. There's lots of buzzy words in there and pretty fashionable right now. What does that mean to system and device vendors and then some of the innovative outcomes that it enables for end-users from a less hype-y statement of verbiage?

Steve: Yeah, sure. Sure. Yeah. Sometimes you gotta get through the buzzy, hype-y words and, actually, get to, "What the heck does that really mean? What are those guys saying?"

Well, I think there's a couple things, right? One is, I think, the part of the vendors themselves and the device vendors. It really allows the device vendors to provide more service and more value to their end-user customers. Okay? Now that they have access, they could potentially have access if they still enable them to have that to the devices and the operation of those devices. So, the vendors themselves now can be maybe adding more value from the standpoint of service by doing predictive analysis on helping with preventative maintenance, knowing the health of those devices, and so on, and being more proactive about what's going on from actually overall managing the uptime and the utilization of the plant, because now, they have a clear view into what's going on with every aspect down to the sensor level of that operation. So, I think that's one area of all that from the vendor perspective where they can add value.

I think from an end-user standpoint, I think one of the things that's possible now is the ability to, I guess I'll refer to it as shorten the cycle time from system concept to design, to deployment, to operate, from the standpoint of now being able to use DTMs effectively to model what's going on with the control system and to be able to go ahead and actually do the entire design, check it out, see if it actually works before they actually buy a piece of hardware. The fact that the DTMs contain all the information about the different devices that are going to go into the process, I think it's a lot easier to go ahead and try to simulate stuff before they actually start deploying things, which may shorten cycle time from the deployment of installing a new line or adding or whatever might need to happen to meeting the manufacturing needs that somebody would have. So, I think that's probably the biggest thing is really, because now we have this field, the cloud connection clearly shortens design times for a control system.

Keith: That makes sense. So, really using some of that data that's in the DTM to enable a digital twin type of model.

Steve: Absolutely.

Keith: Yeah, that makes sense.

All right, great. Great. I have to say thanks so much, Steve, for sharing your insights with us today. Really best of luck in your new role, and it's an exciting time, obviously, for FDT Group to be launching these new capabilities.

Steve: Yeah, it is. It is. It's great. And I think it's kind of fun to get involved in something like this and kind of keep it moving forward here. So, it's a great time to be involved. It's great to see things happen in the industry.

Keith: Super. And again, we've been talking with Steve Biegacki, group managing director for FDT Group. I'm Keith Larson. You've been listening to Control Amplified podcast. And for those of you listening, thanks also for tuning in.

If you found this episode informative, you can subscribe at the iTunes Store and at Google Podcasts. Plus you can find the full archive of past episodes at controlglobal.com. Signing off until next time.

For more, tune into Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast.

About the Author

Control Amplified: | Control Amplified: The Process Automation Podcast

The Control Amplified Podcast offers in-depth interviews and discussions with industry experts about important topics in the process control and automation field, and goes beyond Control's print and online coverage to explore underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and others in these industries.

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