Using OPC UA to Bridge the Gap to Your ERP

SPONSORED BY: Software Toolbox


Five Ways Software Toolbox Solutions Use OPC UA to Bridge the Gap Between Your ERP and Your Process & Other Technologies

For various reasons, many organizations still have one or more disconnects between the PLCs and other control devices closest to the ultimate process and the upstream systems responsible for coordinating efforts across the enterprise. In an ideal world, all data exchange between all systems in an enterprise would be automated for the greatest efficiency.

A key focus of Industry 4.0 is closing all connectivity gaps in manufacturing and other industries. Such gaps are a contributing factor to why present-day manufacturing potential is not achieved. Five areas in production are particularly affected that slow down production processes and increase both error rates and workload.

  1. Manual Collection & Record-Keeping of Process Values
  2. Key Production Data Is Isolated in a Spreadsheet (or other “islands”)
  3. Manual ERP System Data Entry
  4. Manual Entry of ERP Data into Labeling and Other Systems
  5. Manual Transfer of Process Parameters from ERP systems to PLCs and Other Control Systems

There are numerous benefits to closing those five digital communication gaps, which we’ll discuss in more detail shortly. Networked production doesn’t always need to be difficult, if industry makes use of one common communication standard, which joins all systems, machines, and devices seamlessly together for cross-platform communication. The OPC technology stack, and specifically OPC UA, is a key enabler for tying together differing systems.

1. Manual Record-Keeping of Process Values

If a production environment isn’t fully digitally integrated, this essentially implies that production lines and spaces aren’t seamlessly interconnected with a company’s entire architecture of miscellaneous systems. The greatest downside in that case is that important process values and other results (i.e. actual machine data) are not readily accessible across all production levels (that data is locked up in those respective machines or systems).

In production facilities, a variety of machinery has been implemented and is not digitally connected. Although the machines operate well throughout the production process, in accordance with their respective technical characteristics, the machine’s activity-related data cannot be accessed any external digital interface. Sometimes this is due to cost constraints, age of the machine, machine supplier choice and limitations, or security but the result is the same:  the business has operational blind spots where there are nearly always missed opportunities for improvement if the data was made available in a seamless dataflow to be considered with similar data from related processes and systems.

As a result, important process values and results must be manually read and written down, then manually entered into another system. A human has to literally transfer the data off the machine display into a list by jotting everything down on a sheet of paper or entering it into a spreadsheet, to produce that needed record of the machine’s data activities. This method, while less common than it was 10 or 20 years ago, is still an unfortunate reality in many production environments and causes error-prone operating processes. Data workflows aren’t rapid, smooth, repeatable, or reliable. Writing errors during transcription occur regularly.

Now consider the difference when that gap is eliminated and access directly to the machine and its data is possible from the other systems in your organization. Machine and production data is much more reliable since potential human error and latency has been minimized. Production-related process values and results reliably reach their desired destinations in their respective target systems because networked data transfer delivers error-free transmissions; as long as connectivity architectures have been implemented correctly, to prevent data redundancy or loss.

Industry 4.0 interoperability, driven in many ways by the proliferation of OPC UA and OPC Classic technologies, continues to facilitate greater and greater connectivity, along with other connectivity standards such as MQTT. Standards reduce the cost and risk of integration.

Software Toolbox enables users with off-the-shelf software applications for a variety of automated data collection from OPC UA servers to tools such as the OPC Router for reliable interoperability between your machines either directly in some cases, via OPC UA, and most importantly with direct ERP system connectors.

When security is a concern and the reason machines have been isolated, the Cogent DataHub provides secure data tunneling supporting proxies and DMZs that are IT friendly and can even move data without opening inbound firewall ports.

If you still need to gather manual data but want to integrate it with other OPC UA, OPC Classic, and database data, the Flow Software application provides a spreadsheet like interface that seamlessly captures the manual data and integrates it with your automatically gathered data.  Manual collected measures can be later converted to automatic without loss of the existing history, allowing migration of your machines over time.

2. Key Production Data Is Isolated in a Spreadsheet (or Other “Islands”)

If machine data is processed and/or analyzed in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, Excel is being used as stopgap “database” of sorts, and a makeshift solution for this gap in production data accessibility. While we see less of this gap these days, there are still organizations that rely heavily on spreadsheets for such functionality.

While Excel is versatile and useful in the business world, it is an isolated tool for integrating process data across an enterprise. It can never produce the diversity of applications and quality of performance a good database can provide. Excel also does not have the accountability around who makes changes that a proper database can provide. As a result, process data sitting in an Excel spreadsheet is not Industry 4.0-compatible, as the information they contain is not readily accessible within an otherwise Industry 4.0-ready environment.

Carrying out data maintenance tasks is hard to do in a reliable way in Excel, too. Mainly because it wasn’t designed to be used as database in the first place and does not offer Industry 4.0-compatibility in and of itself.

It is also not possible to reliably connect Excel to IoT and other systems without suitable middleware. However if you really must, we can help with the Cogent DataHub Excel connector that makes it easy to connect OPC UA and OPC Classic to Excel. Even though it is possible to make use of Excel in multiple ways, it also does not provide the needed efficiency when compared to dynamic data management.

Let’s consider what happens when the same data previously stored in an Excel spreadsheet is automatically accessible to upstream HMI, SCADA and ERP systems directly and stored in an intermediate database for historization, trending and reporting applications. Process data can be sent to a database directly, if the appropriate data protocol is used for data transfers and if a powerful middleware ensures that transactions can be carried out on a 24/7 basis.

Databases like MySQL, Oracle and ODBC provide many possibilities for data storage. If all machines and equipment in an enterprise are connected with databases and upstream systems, the data can be fully utilized because all the available data becomes accessible and can be used together for better decision making.

And in those situations where there is still a need in the organization for Excel spreadsheets for dealing with administrative subtasks, the required data can now be generated from the database, eliminating manual copying work at the machine. Handwritten lists now don’t have to be transferred into Excel and don’t have to be kept up-to-date by human effort.

Through Industry 4.0 interoperability, machine and production data can be managed fast and profoundly. Your machine data becomes quickly available in your database – with the OPC Router provided by inray.

And with its connectivity options across disparate systems, OPC Router makes it possible to send your process data directly to your database; for instance to MySQL, ODBC, Oracle, but also to Codebase or SQLite. And with the OPC Router’s OPC UA interface, your systems are ready for OPC UA Data Access Automation. 

3. Manual ERP System Data Entry

As discussed earlier, wherever handwritten notes are relied on as a primary data collection mechanism, chaos is normally on the menu. It’s incredibly inefficient to still be entering data manually into an ERP system, though we realize the obstacles readers face in achieving this, even though technology has increased options for automatic collection. This lack of integration results in many challenges including:

  • Lost or missing data
  • Inaccuracies
  • Suboptimal or wrong decisions
  • Slow decision making
  • Lack of transparency and timely updates when things are not going well
  • Misalignment of views on operations & business success

ERP systems promise a common management platform and an end to the paper chase. The reality is ERP integration just on the business side can be a monumental, complex, and costly task. We remember when we modernized our system what the effort was just for Software Toolbox and have watched many of our clients face the challenge over our company history.

Ideally, process data and information flows from the plant floor into the ERP system from all data sources available in the enterprise and can be retrieved from everywhere. The OPC UA standard has been a key enabler for automated data collection, but you need more than just a standard to make the integration a reality.  You need:

  • Drivers to connect to your various devices
  • Tools to integrate databases of all types
  • Connectors for IoT devices and cloud systems using MQTT and cloud systems like Azure, Google, and Amazon.
  • Methods for moving data through firewalls, DMZs, and ideally without exposing the network through open firewall ports.
  • Native connectors for the many different available SAP integration methods that also use OPC UA connections efficiently and cost-effectively with SAP.
  • REST and SOAP Web Services connectors for non-SAP ERP systems
  • Experts that understand how these tools work together and understand OPC UA

Software Toolbox brings together a variety of software solutions with the expertise of how they work together and with other systems to support achieving your integration goals. For example, the SAP plug-in for OPC Router, coupled with a variety of plug-ins for other systems including OPC UA, can bring that ideal scenario closer to reality.  Cogent DataHub’s secure data tunneling addresses complex data networking requirements.  Software Toolbox’s variety of OPC UA solutions and toolkits that complement OPC Router help complete the picture.

4. Manual Entry of ERP Data into Labeling and Other Systems

So now let’s reverse the conversation and discuss getting data out of ERP and into automation systems, such as labelers or labeling systems. When those systems are not able to retrieve any or all needed information from the ERP system, labeling becomes a risky business. This risk occurs at an important intersection of the company. As a result, data being used to generate those labels might well be full of errors. It takes additional effort to verify the correctness of the data, as one can never be quite certain if the data is totally faultless and thus can be relied upon fully.

It’s not uncommon for such data to be stored in several different systems. The problem with this is that if these respective systems are not interconnected, they cannot be checked for errors holistically (i.e. checking all data together in one place). Time is lost verifying the correctness of data involving various departments, as the needed data is derived from data sources from customer service, order handling, production and dispatch. Only when all needed data is put together can the printing of labels or the printing directly on packaging material via respective labelers or printing systems occur. Printing/labeling goods or packages ready for delivery with incorrect data will almost certainly lead to higher overhead costs and expensive rejects and/or rework.

However, directly connecting labeling systems to a designated SAP ERP system results in the required data being instantly available at the labeler or labeling systems. Provided that a productive middleware establishes the required connection, such data can be sent to the printer, labeler or printing unit.

Examples of the sort of important data needed for printing labels are item and lot numbers, quantities, MHD and batch numbers, as well as SSCC barcodes.

A Serial Shipping Container Code (SSCC) is an 18-digit number, mostly also represented as barcode, used to identify logistics units, which helps identify shipment items correctly and to also track them all the way through from respective dispatch locations to target destinations. A lot of information is needed to label products in compliance with rules and regulations and to ensure that goods are accurately sent to the right recipient.

Through Industry 4.0 interoperability, labelers and printers can be integrated into an existing Industry 4.0 infrastructure. With this architecture, your SAP data can be sent in the right data format to the printer and then printed on the correct label in the correct format – via the OPC Router and its plug-ins for a variety of printers and labelers including Zebra, Domino, Wolke, MS Windows and generic TCP printers. Software Toolbox’s OmniServer OPC UA server can be used with OPC Router and it’s native SAP and other ERP REST & SOAP integration interfaces for devices that OPC Router does not have native connectors for.

5. Manual Transfer of Process Parameters to Control Systems from ERP

Continuing the ERP to control system concept, in an automated production environment, connectivity or integration gaps requiring PCR parameterization by hand (e.g. for recipes and order information) are especially problematic given their location at the heart of highly automated production plants.

Does anyone ever really want to adjust parameter settings manually? The short answer, NO! Work processes are slow and drag along if human interaction is required for every single change notice that makes parameter changes necessary. It’s incredibly inefficient to go about your production business in such a fashion, as machines developed around the turn of the millennium are equipped with CNC or PLC technology and are waiting to be interconnected with an intelligent communication network.

As such, in operations where this is still the norm, it should be a primary focus to eliminate manual parameter configuration in favor of establishing direct connections to ERP/MES and PLCs. The ERP system sends parameters and other adjustment data directly to the machine’s PLCs.

Automated PLC parameterization is well within reach through the OPC Router and its plug-ins for SAP, OPC and other standard interfaces along with the rest of Software Toolbox’s OPC UA solutions for drivers and integration that complement the OPC Router. The machine can be parameterized automatically, which limits operator interaction to an absolute minimum and can eliminate user interaction completely, in some cases.

Furthermore, other important changes can be prompted via ERP/MES, impacting the machinery on the plant floor directly. The level of impact one has can be limited to regular data transfers only but can also be extended to include data for approvals or clearances and refitting orders. This will depend on each company’s preferences and possibilities – and especially upon an enterprise’s specific Industry 4.0 network environment and how interconnections between systems and machines are set up in detail.

ERP Integration – SAP and Beyond

Throughout this article, we’ve referred to the generic term ERP. It’s an important distinction to make that, while SAP is the market leader in ERP systems, it is not the only ERP system out there. So while having the ability to bridge all of these gaps to SAP is certainly a requirement in a solution, being able to integrate other ERPs in addition to SAP can be important for a lot of companies.

OPC Router provides multiple avenues of integration with SAP and with other ERP systems. Support for integrating SOAP web services and REST web services provide flexible options for connecting to non-SAP ERP and other systems.

And for SAP itself, OPC Router provides more than one way to bring your process data sources into SAP. There is, of course, OPC UA – with SAP having an OPC UA connector, OPC Router’s ability to integrate various non-OPC data sources and convert them to OPC UA provides SAP users with a data source gateway to bridge the gaps we just discussed above. OPC Router addresses the reality of the industrial process space – while OPC UA continues to expand into more and more systems, there are still non-OPC systems out there with important data.

And since OPC Router can aggregate data from other OPC UA sources, it also provides SAP users a method for avoid any issues related to the limits on the SAP UA connector with respect to the number of OPC UA sources it can connect to. SAP can make one connection to OPC Router for accessing any number of other OPC sources.

And besides the SAP OPC UA connector, OPC Router also provides options for connecting to SAP via RFC, BAPI, IDoc, SAP HANA and the aforementioned SOAP and REST interfaces. And all SAP connectivity is code-free – no programming required. OPC Router is also not subject to the 128-device limit of SAP PCo.

We hope this article has given you some insights into how you can identify data connectivity gaps in your own organization and shown you empowering tools that leverage OPC UA to bridge those gaps.

If you’re interested in how the variety of OPC Router plug-ins can help fill your connectivity gaps, click here for more details. You can try OPC Router with the free trial available here. You can also explore the rest of Software Toolbox’s OPC UA integration solutions or contact us to discuss your specific challenges.