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Highlights from the OPC Foundation Information Revolution 2014 Conference

    headshot_bill_lydonBy Bill Lydon, Editor of

    The OPC Foundation Information Revolution 2014 Conference was held at Microsoft’s Redmond Campus on August 4-7, 2014. The conference featured industry experts who both presented and learned more about OPC Unified Architecture.


    Embedded to Enterprise & Cloud

    Tom Burke, Executive Director of the OPC Foundation, opened the conference by reflecting on the history of the OPC Foundation, which was founded in 1996. Burke emphasized that OPC UA is now used to move information in all types of industry applications, from embedded devices to the enterprise and cloud computing. OPC standards and certifications empower users and vendors to implement products and systems with the confidence that OPC Foundation vendor hardware and software building blocks will work together reliably. Today, more than 40,000 products use OPC standards.

    Leveraging Data

    Rohit Bhargava, Global Technology Strategist of World Wide Manufacturing & Resources at Microsoft Corporation, commented that Microsoft has been a longtime supporter of OPC standards. Windows 3.0 enabled multiple applications to run in a PC on the plant floor and communicate with PLCs and other devices using a standard interface. Bhargava described Microsoft’s large investments in the cloud, machine learning, and big data, all of which are defining a new generation of applications. These cloud and enterprise technologies can be deployed to achieve greater responsiveness and efficiency with make-to-order manufacturing, synchronized supply chains, production optimization, predictive maintenance, and operations viability. Bhargava indicated that cloud applications are growing quickly, which is evident by the adoption of Microsoft Azure by 57% of Fortune 500 companies and more than 300,000 active websites on Azure.

    Machine Learning

    John Shewchuk, Technical Fellow at Microsoft, described the new Azure Machine Learning as powerful, cloud-based analytics designed for new and experienced users on a pay-for-use basis. The AZURE ML Studio is a drag and drop development platform in the cloud where users can build data flow diagrams to refine data and perform analysis using high-level functions. It also supports the open source software programming language R for statistical computing and graphics that is widely used among statisticians and data miners. Data sources can be anywhere, including automation controllers with PLCopen OPC UA function blocks. The function blocks send data for analysis to Azure Machine Learning and receive answers back to implement functions such as optimization and predictive maintenance.

    Industrial Internet

    Bernie Anger, General Manager of GE Intelligent Platforms, described how they are both a producer and user of automation in their various business units, including turbines, well heads, motors, jet engines, and locomotives. GE invests more than $300 million per year integrating their own internal manufacturing systems, and OPC UA simplifies this process. Anger discussed the emergence of “the industrial Internet and cloud-assisted automation…enable ambient intelligence.” He gave the example of using the crowdsourcing WAZE app to navigate traffic on his way to Microsoft as ambient intelligence. The app crowd sources traffic information and applies analytics to guide the user to better travel routes. A large opportunity for users is the improvement of predictive maintenance to increase uptime and productivity.

    Bernie Anger views automation systems as edge devices that collect a large amount data and “feed the beast.” OPC UA is GE’s interoperability standard to improve asset optimization, create better customer experiences, and enable meaningful service models. OPC UA is a fundamental part of GE’s controls convergence strategy, which also includes being a founding member of the Industrial Internet Consortium. Microsoft is also a member of the Industrial Internet Consortium.

    Frictionless Communications

    Wesley Skeffington, Principal Engineer at GE Global Research, discussed the transition in automation to implement machine concepts with intelligent end devices that communicate using OPC UA and open industrial networks. Skeffington suggests that new technology is improving the user experience by refining big data, creating insights, and presenting it in more meaningful ways. He noted that OPC UA common information data models enable the multivendor interoperability required for putting data into context. Skeffington phrased it as,“doing away with the secret decoder rings and spreadsheets.” He described eight new GE products that incorporate OPC UA, including embedded controllers, HMIs, condition monitoring, and electrical protection devices.

    Industry 4.0

    Industry 4.0 is a German initiative that embraces OPC UA to implement self-organizing, integrated production installations that communicate and coordinate with the entire value chain. OPC UA board member Thomas Hahn of Siemens described how Industry 4.0 encompasses the entire process, including design, production, and service. Industry 4.0 goals include flexible order processing, efficient resource management, 100% traceability and quality assurance, self-optimizing manufacturing and production, and consistent engineering. The implementation of Industry 4.0 requires flexible production based on modular, autonomous production units that must coordinate operations. Interoperability is essential. OPC UA is ideal for this implementation of multivendor interoperable, secure, cross platform interaction. The Acatech Final Report of the Industrie 4.0 Working Group, published in April 2013, included survey information where respondents noted the number one challenge with implementing Industry 4.0 is standardization.


    The President of OPC Foundation Europe, Stefan Hoppe of Beckhoff Automation, discussed how OPC UA relates to the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0. Beckhoff first embedded an OPC UA Client in PLCs in 2012. Hoppe noted that Siemens was the first company certified for OPC UA. Hoppe described the application of OPC UA at the Elster Company, a manufacturer of gas, water, and electric meters, where controllers communicate directly with SAP enterprise systems using OPC UA. By using OPC UA, Elster has eliminated the use of outside integrators. Elster now integrates their systems in-house and dramatically lowered implementation costs.

    Hoppe characterized three types of required manufacturing communications that OPC UA satisfies:

    • B2B: Business to business (milliseconds to minutes e.g. MES to ERP, to cloud)
    • B2M: Business to machine (milliseconds to minutes e.g. from MES into controller)
    • M2M: machine to machine (microseconds to milliseconds, e.g. robot to robot)

    Controllers now have embedded OPC UA client and server, so now any part of a system can communicate with any other part using web services, methods, and procedures. Further strengthening and simplifying this capability are PLCopen OPC UA standard objects. In addition, PLCopen has a function block used by controllers for communicating directly with each other using OPC UA. This achieves peer-to-peer communications for coordinated manufacturing and the transmission of complex data structures without configuration of every single data point.

    Use Cases

    The OPC UA standards and infrastructure are leveraged by a number of groups to achieve open communications. Use cases include:

    OPC UA Advances

    Jim Luth, Software Architect for Foxboro Evo R&D and OPC Foundation UA Working Group Chairman & TAC Member, discussed ongoing refinements and improvements to OPC UA, including cyber security, discovery, and other features and functions. He invites industry professionals and OPC Foundation Members to participate in UA Working Groups. UA Working Groups typically have web meetings and 3 or 4 face-to-face meetings per year (3 or 4 days each). More information about Working Groups.

    Thoughts & Observations

    OPC UA, Internet of Things, cloud computing, and analytics provide visibility from edge devices, enterprise, and the cloud. They enable new business models and make manufacturers more efficient and responsive. The aggregation and federation of data throughout the manufacturing value chain, including the supply chain, energy, utilities, and real-time customer communications, opens the door for a holistic approach to more efficient production.

    The Microsoft Azure Machine Learning ability to leverage data using cloud computing may be a glimpse into the future. This empowers plant people who understand their specific manufacturing processes to leverage analytics using a toolset. Azure Machine Learning reminds me of Visual Basic because it demystified programming and enabled a wide base of users to create solutions tailored to their needs. Click here to try AzureML.

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