Talking about acceptance and adoption of OPC Unified Architecture we usually focused on uniqueness and remarkable features of this standard with the goal of sending the message: “OPC UA is the best interoperability standard – it is much better then other classic solutions ever available” to the community. Additionally, we are sending (circulating) this message over and over to other members of our close OPC UA community. My concern is if it is an effective approach because it looks like “the old shoes syndrome” – it is not enough to buy new ones only because there are much better new ones. We should rather say “don’t use your old shoes while jumping onto your windsurfing board only because they are comfortable – it is not very sensible”. On the grounds of my personal experience I am trying to imagine new unexplored yet fields of potential applications of the OPC UA. It is obvious that their number is uncountable, therefore a selection key must be applied. To follow the idea from the introduction above the “ENABLER” seems to be most appropriate to flag the technology, solution, application, model, approach, etc. that OPC UA makes possible.
The Exploration Catalog
To make my dreaming more useful for others, my first attempt is to prepare a series of short articles (a catalog) on new application scopes where OPC UA could be recognized as a prerequisite. All of them have a common title pattern “OPC UA Makes it Possible”. Today the catalog consists of:
- OPC UA Makes Process Observer Archetype Possible: Process Observer is a kind of a virtual layer, which is a “big picture” of the underlying process layer composed of unit data randomly accessible by means of a unified and standardized interface. It allows the process and business management systems, using international standards of data exchange to share data from plant floor devices. Process Observer is like a bridge connection between the plant-floor control and the process and business management levels.
- OPC UA Makes Complex Data Access Possible: The Industrial IT domain is an integrated set of ICT systems. System integration means the necessity of the information exchange between them (the nodes of a common domain). ICT systems are recognized as a typical measure of processing information. The main challenge of deploying an Industrial IT solution is that information is abstract – it is knowledge describing a situation in the selected environment, e.g. temperature in a boiler, a car speed, an account balance, etc. Unfortunately machines cannot be used to process abstraction. It is also impossible to transfer abstraction from one place to another.
- OPC UA Makes Highly Distributed Network Control Systems Possible: Nowadays, modern manufacturing automation systems have to be involved. Usually they consist of numerous different IT systems located at business management/operation and process control levels. To deploy the convergence the systems have to be integrated – must interoperate with each other. From integration we should expect improved performance as a result of synergy and macro optimization effects.
- OPC UA Makes Global Security Possible: We can observe rapid development of globally scoped applications for domains like health, banking, safety, etc. The globalization process is also observed in control engineering. The secure transfer of process control data over the Internet must, therefore, be addressed as the most important prerequisite of this kind of applications.
- OPC UA Makes Cloud Computing Possible: Cloud Computing is defined as a method to provide requested functionality as a set of services. Following the Cloud Computing idea and offering control systems as a service, there is required a mechanism created on the service concept and supported abstraction and virtualization – two main pillars of the Cloud Computing paradigm.
- OPC UA Makes Smart Factory Possible: In this case “collaboration” is the key word. Analyzing the collaboration needs of the smart factory we must distinguish two dissimilar targets surrounding the factory: humans and applications. To make this collaboration well-defined in the information exchange and behavioral aspects, the collaboration platforms (e.g. SharePoint) and integration measures (OPC UA) must be integrated.
- OPC UA Makes Smart User Interface Possible: It introduces a concept of semantic HMI that is an approach to relay the interface on discovering the meaning of process data using the metadata provided by plant floor measurement and control devices. Additionally, network-connected HMI needs special security precautions to be applied.
- OPC UA Makes Production Traceability Possible: To use analyzers and track selected product and its ingredients parameters, complex data must be managed, i.e. created, transmitted, processed, and saved. To be useful, process data must be exposed in the context of well know semantics represented by the metadata.
- OPC UA Makes Smart Utility Distribution Systems Possible: Following the concept of smart grids, more and more companies decide to start working on smart utility distribution systems (gas, water, chilly water, or even oil) to improve the performance and availability. The process is dispersed geographically and partially managed by independent operators. An active role of ultimate consumer is very important.
All the articles above are OPC UA related. For those looking for more information about this interoperability standard there are two articles providing very basic information, I hope, helping to follow the main topics.
- OPC UA – Specifications: OPC Unified Architecture is described in a layered set of specifications issued by the OPC Foundation, that are broken into parts. It is purposely described in abstract terms and only in selected parts coupled (mapped) to existing technology on which software can be built. This layering is intentional and helps isolate changes in OPC UA from changes in the technology used to implement it.
- OPC Unified Architecture: Main Technological Features: It focuses on new features of this interoperability standard including: service oriented architecture, object-oriented information model, abstraction and mapping, security, profiles, robustness.
Looking for the new application scope of OPC UA we must face up to managing team work aimed at exploring new undiscovered areas. On the grounds of experience gained while managing variety of innovative process control and business management projects I can say that their scope definition and budget estimation is always the most challenging task. Typically, if the estimated budget of any project is higher than the other ones, the solution provider is recognized as inefficient in one way or another. But there might be another reason if innovative projects are concerned, i.e. the provider’s know-how and extraordinary experience make a better assessment possible. Better always means higher in this context, so typically it puts the solution provider in an underprivileged position and leads to the “more stupid the better” issue. For an innovative project, the main reason why its critical parameters are hardly predictable is its innovative nature. From the definition, an innovation as a translation of an idea or invention into a product or service that creates value is an exploration into unexplored areas. The leader of the team must, therefore, face up to a high level of uncertainty. The following article provides some insights and a proposal with the goal of mitigating this issue.
- Embedding Agile Principles as Contract Rules: It proposes a methodology framework that tightly couples agile management (to dynamically control the work scope and time framework) to workload tracking with the goal of maximizing the value for money.
To bring the presented ideas into solutions, more work is required with the aim of preparing comprehensive guidance collecting all that is needed to help deploy them in a real environment. Before trying to figure out what should be done to step forward, the audience of the outcome must be determined. Thus we should address the following needs:
- For end users – adding solutions to requirements, but limited to feasible ones only
- For integrators – adding solutions to portfolio, but limited to confirmed ones only
- For vendors – adding features to products, but limited to required ones only
To create a foundation supporting deployment of the technology in new areas, the effort should be focused on:
- Feasibilities studies: aimed at describing architecture (re-usable templates) as an interconnection of products making up a structure, product features required to interconnect them in a consistent way, business processes surrounding the solution in question, cost estimation, and solution profitability.
- Pilot applications: aimed at providing proof of concept and “how to …” cookbook.
- Best practice guidance: to maintain the quality and minimize application risks.
All the activities on the wish list above require an appropriate business model to happen, but this topic is outside this article scope. Good news is that governments and European Union support innovative projects in some countries, e.g. Poland, making the research and development much cheaper (up to 85% might be refunded). Since the beginning of the financial perspective 2007-2013, Poland has become the largest recipient of support under Cohesion Policy in the history of the European Union. In the financial perspective 2014-2020 the support is expected to be even greater. There are many programs planned with small and medium-sized enterprises as main targets with the priority focused among others on:
- Research and development of modern technologies
- R&D infrastructure
- Capital for innovation
- Investments in innovative undertakings
- Diffusion of innovation
- Polish economy on the international market
Do not miss this opportunity – you will be welcomed to Poland.