“For OPC UA FX there will only be a way forward”

“For OPC UA FX there will only be a way forward”
Written by insideindyhomes

When the combination of the OPC UA M2M protocol with synchronization via Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN) was presented in 2016, it was inspired by the idea of ​​standardized, deterministic Industry 4.0 communication. The field level was also included under the umbrella of the OPC Foundation via the Field Level Communications (FLC) initiative – the result is the OPC UA FX (Field eXchange) Specifications. We asked Elmar Zimmerling, Product Manager Industrial IoT Network Solutions at B&R Industrial Automation GmbH, Eggelsberg, whether the expectations were met.

Interview: Michael Corban, Editor-in-Chief of elektro AUTOMATION

electro AUTOMATION: In 2016, B&R was one of the initiators of the so-called Shapers, who want to establish a uniform communication standard with real determinism based on OPC UA and TSN. Where do we stand today from B&R’s point of view?

Elmar Zimmerling (B&R): I am very happy with the direction we are going with OPC UA FX. At the SPS 2021 trade fair, we could have shown what is already possible using a multi-vendor demo and controller-to-controller communication. I would have wished that we had made more progress on a few points, but we shouldn’t forget that we are talking about nothing less than a disruptive approach to replacing the automation pyramid with its special solutions that we have been familiar with for many years – especially at the field level.

The technological interlocking and synergies of TSN mechanisms with the framework of OPC UA are finally jointly conceived with direct participation and cooperation between competitors in the automation market and thus validly specified – in English one speaks of coopetition. Only such a ‘new normal’ of a converged IT/OT network of cyber-physical systems will be able to reliably and consistently meet current and future IT automation requirements. The reason is obvious: Without this new foundation there will be no Industry 4.0 and the hurdles in using machine learning and subsequently artificial intelligence (AI) will not be overcome.

Industry 4.0 communication requirements

electro AUTOMATION: The development towards a manufacturer-independent standard was also deliberately delegated to the OPC Foundation and the Field Level Communications (FLC) initiative was founded there with a view to the field level. The result is the ‘OPC UA FX (Field eXchange) Specifications’. Does this reflect B&R’s approach and expectations?

carpenter: It was right and important to give this great idea, this then still tender little plant, a safe home and the right breeding ground – the OPC Foundation is predestined for this. The FLC initiative in particular now includes the most important companies in the automation industry with 27 members worldwide. In other words, more than 300 experts are involved in the implementation, i.e. the specifications of the various OPC UA FX technology modules. With OPC UA FX, this includes TSN, of course, but also functional safety, network connection management, publisher/subscriber messaging, drive technology, remote I/O and much more. It is also important that the FLC has written not only the harmonization of factory automation but also that of the process industry on its agenda. On the other hand, this also makes it clear why it all takes time – time to get to know each other and build trust. After all, we are all thoroughbred technicians, but at the same time we are also people with our own opinions and views. Nevertheless, we are on the right track – the train is rolling faster and faster.

electro AUTOMATION: Are there any further requirements that you would like to see implemented by B&R?

carpenter: The OPC UA FX framework consists of some essential technology building blocks. Especially with a view to our innovative automation portfolio for top solutions in mechanical engineering, determinism plays an important role. For example, when you think of fast control in the field of drive technology or the integrated camera-based image control. When it comes to the necessary flexibility of production processes, machines and beyond, ‘smart’ machine safety will also be decisive. All of this can already be found on the FLC roadmap and we are well represented and active in the expert working groups ourselves or through our mother company ABB. In summary, I can say that our requirements are all taken into account.

OPC UA FX as the standard for industrial communication

electro AUTOMATION: After there were many different standards for data communication in fieldbuses and Industrial Ethernet systems, OPC UA FX is seen as a possible Industry 4.0 standard. The aim was also to prevent the parallel development of proprietary standards again, which makes life difficult for device manufacturers in particular. does this work? It is striking that, for example, the CC-Link IE world supports TSN very strongly, but when it comes to Profinet IRT or Ethercat, your own designs are preferred?

carpenter: The TSN technology is fundamentally completely independent of OPC UA, as both work in different layers of the ISO/OSI model. TSN in layers 2-3, OPC UA in layer 7 in the application layer. The combination of existing legacy protocols with TSN is therefore not surprising – from my point of view an extension of the existing business model with the existing technology. However, thanks to the gigabit basis, TSN offers a higher bandwidth or the possibility of more network participants, it allows convergence on the network. However, that alone is far from meeting today’s requirements of Industry 4.0 or the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). However, it is only such applications that promise customer benefits based on valuable data.

OPC UA FX offers the market decisive advantages. There are no gateways between the real-time Ethernet solutions – one of the major hurdles in data science projects to obtain qualitatively meaningful information. In addition, real semantics are possible down to the field level, where smart sensors will explode in terms of performance and number in the next few years. Last but not least, cyber security, which has always been ‘built-in’ with OPC UA, also plays a role. In the case of legacy fieldbuses, security must always be considered and financed individually for each protocol, with additional effort. Due to the strong networking, infrastructure projects are therefore increasingly given the status ‘critical’ – there is a need for standardization and pooling of forces in the ongoing development of defense mechanisms, the monitoring, the detection and mitigation of cyber risks.

electro AUTOMATION: So there is no way around OPC UA FX…

carpenter: …because there is only the way forward. With regard to OPC UA FX, let me draw a comparison with other developments, such as electromobility in the automotive sector. With a view to the combustion engines, we have super-mature technology at our disposal. In order to achieve CO2 neutrality for the volume models, however, they have to be converted to electric drive using batteries or fuel cells. For the sensible and ‘digestible’ transition, the car industry offers plug-in hybrids, i.e. a combination of combustion engine and electric drive, but at the same time is pushing and investing massively in new developments of purely electric vehicles. Of course there are still hurdles to overcome – but just like with OPC UA FX there will only be a way forward, a lot will come faster than expected.

Similarly, I could imagine a transition scenario for OPC UA FX versus the ‘old world’ for the next 5-7 years. By then, OPC UA FX will have established itself as the preferred world standard. Especially with brownfield installations, this will help to make the transition more reliable and easier to plan.

Powerlink and OPC UA FX

electro AUTOMATION: Will B&R then also ‘switch off’ Powerlink in the foreseeable future?

carpenter: The tried-and-tested Powerlink technology is of course still supported in our devices – as I said, a ‘hybrid’ transitional period with protection of existing status is also very important to us in view of our customers in mechanical engineering. Since we are already implementing OPC UA FX on our controllers and bus controllers at the same time, the customer can decide for himself when to switch to OPC UA FX. As more IIoT requirements are added, this transition becomes more interesting due to the advantages mentioned above. But I would like to emphasize once again: the customer decides when to make this change. With a view to machine learning projects, however, this will be the case sooner rather than later. In the case of both start-ups and companies that have been successful for many years, more than half of these projects still fail due to hurdles in obtaining the data and poor data quality. The core idea behind Industry 4.0 is the merging of different data streams. TSN in particular supports this convergence – a property which, in my view, is even more important than the determinism that is often emphasized.

OPC UA FX and TSN in practice

electro AUTOMATION: B&R implemented TSN on the device early on – what is the current status and what does B&R’s future roadmap look like in this regard?

carpenter: We are consistently in the process of equipping all new developments with OPC UA FX technology, at least as an option. All future controllers and bus controllers will support OPC UA FX. Our customers can already use OPC UA framework extensions such as Publisher/Subscriber. We will implement all other functions in our Automation Runtime operating system and our Automation Studio development environment as soon as the OPC Foundation has published the relevant specifications.

electro AUTOMATION: What help can you offer users to be able to use OPC UA FX and TSN quickly and easily?

carpenter: Our aim is always to make access as easy as possible – the necessary configurations in the TSN network, the more complex interaction of all network participants and their data exchange must run as completely autonomously as possible in the background. Our developers have the simplicity of using a smartphone in mind. OPC UA FX will therefore enable a huge leap in future IT automation in just a few years.

And to come back to the coopetition: The core of OPC UA FX will also be in the future that a customer experiences the best user experience when using and connecting different systems – you can therefore assume that the FLC members with mutual compatibility tests. After all, we are all investing extensively in this great idea with a future.

More information about B&R solutions with OPC UA over TSN:

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