Deep dive into OPC UA with Omron Automation's Jay Hughes

Nov. 29, 2023
From authentication and encryption to real-world applications and future innovations in industrial machinery

Jay Hughes is field engineering supervisor at Omron Automation. He provides perspective on OPC UA.

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What have been the most significant advancements/changes in technology that have affected OPC UA acceptance/implementation in the past five years?

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: Authentication and encryption. By requiring credentials, OPC-UA can be an important asset in addressing cyber vulnerabilities before bad actors can deploy techniques such as “man in the middle.” This is even more significant when you add in the power of high-resolution data and the cost of cyber attacks becoming cyber-physical. With a 9% compound annual growth rate of OPC-UA Foundation membership over the past five years, it’s clear that users of this technology agree. This is a huge testament to both the technological ethos and the advancements which have fueled both adoption and utility.

What’s the most innovative or efficient OPC UA application you’ve ever seen or been involved with?

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: Our application engineering team just finished a project using OPC-UA recently at an automotive facility. In this application, it was critical to get process data to operators, engineers and maintenance teams as quickly as possible, especially when the process data, trended over the course of a shift, was able to alert teams to a production issue. Latency in the flow of data increases downtime, and in the hyper-competitive automotive markets this downtime adds up quickly.

To create this efficiency the Omron application engineering team supported an architecture to pull data from an embedded OPC-UA server right to an Andon board. This Andon board not only was displayed right on the production line but was mirrored on team member’s smart phones, allowing the entire plant to be notified when a production issue arose.

How has OPC UA benefitted from the proliferation of components from multiple suppliers in machinery?

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: So much of the power of OPC-UA is the ability to allow supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software communication to not require a path along a proprietary protocol to connect to a programmable logic controller (PLC). OPC-UA has benefitted from the proliferation of components from multiple suppliers in machinery as OPC-UA allows users to take complexity out of the architecture—complexity that can often be attributed to having a multitude of proprietary protocols on the shop floor.

By making the connectivity open, the OPC UA Foundation has reduced inertia for adoptions which in turn has been the real catalyst for all users to benefit from the OPC-UA technology. As we look to the future, this openness to foster collaboration within the industrial-automation community could become a recipe for others to follow.

Can you explain how Industry 4.0 initiatives or the Industrial Internet of Things has impacted the use of OPC UA in manufacturing?

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: When distilling down the challenges in facilities when implementing an Industry 4.0 campaign, it is important to keep in mind that facilities need to get the data from centralized control without compromising process performance, securely send data to central locations and efficiently visualize the data.

Embedding an OPC-UA server within the machine automation controller (MAC) is at the very heart of addressing all three of these challenges. Industry 4.0 has definitely aided the adoption of the OPC-UA through its efficiency and security. Industry 4.0 has also been a real driver for Omron to embed an OPC-UA server right in our flagship MACs, which of course aids greater adoption.

Do you find OPC UA more useful in small embedded systems or larger cloud-based applications?

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: Regardless of scale, we find OPC-UA more useful in systems or applications where new data-transmission solutions must integrate into existing architectures, specifically applications with a host of proprietary protocols. While adding an additional computer to the shop floor loaded with middleware may appear simple, we also know the answer—which is obvious, simple and logical—very well is, more often than not, wrong.

OPC-UA is more useful at facilities that have accumulated a large amount of technical debt and need to start to take complexity out of their designs to become more flexible, as this flexibility allows facilities to adopt future innovations more quickly.

What future innovations will impact the use of OPC UA in manufacturing operations?

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: To come back to security, future trends around data security will continue to shape OPC-UA. More data on the plant floor is becoming confidential, either to protect data from becoming part of public generative artificial intelligence, to adhere to new legislation here in the United States or abroad or to simply protect trade secrets.

Simply sending data across networks which are susceptible to cyber threats can no longer be the industry standard operating procedure. Future innovations around data security could absolutely impact the use of OPC-UA. I, personally, am looking forward to being a part and parcel of the OPC-UA Foundation’s journey to continue to help users protect their data as it is transported to a central database.

Tell us about one of your organization’s state-of-the-art OPC-certified products.

Jay Hughes, field engineering supervisor, Omron Automation: Modern machine controllers have undergone a journey from programmable logic controller to programmable automation controller (PAC) to machine automation controller. The modern MAC encompasses logic, motion control and database connectivity, while seamlessly integrating with safety controllers, vision systems, robots and autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) to provide a complete unified control solution. Embedding OPC-UA server functionality into the Omron MAC has been a high-water mark for the Sysmac control portfolio, and OPC certification has played a big role in that.

While many MACs have touted database connectivity for years, newer MACs make data collection much more efficient with OPC-UA. By embedding OPC-UA server functionality as standard on NX controllers, Omron MACs provide open communications with field devices to ensure the SCADA software communication needs are met as the embedded OPC-UA server supports connections from multiple clients simultaneously—of course, all while leveraging the security aspects of OPC-UA to prevent access from unauthorized clients. This is true from the machine level NX102 MAC to the line level NX502 MAC.

The NX102 has been a tried-and-true robust controller which serves at the perfect scale of control for a single machine, globally. While the NX102 has been serving PLC programmers and key operation processes for years, it represented the continuation of Omron’s commitment to empowering the plant floor with OPC-certified products.

Omron’s NX102 machine controller has been designed to give manufacturing facilities robust safety, accurate motion and transparent control by harnessing Sysmac One Controller, One Connection and One Software for all-in-one automation architecture.

By seamlessly combining the strengths of CIP Safety protocol, FSOE, EtherCAT motion, and EtherNET/IP connectivity, Omron’s NX102 allows facilities to use networks as they were designed to achieve efficiency without added cost common with system complexity.

What makes this NX102 state-of-the-art is the flexibility. By combining the ability to communicate on such a breadth of globally open industrial protocols with OPC-UA server functionality embedded, the NX102 can very quickly be deployed into both brownfield and greenfield facilities. While this superpower may not be as glamorous as Omron’s marketing department may like, the NX102 gets automation up and running quickly. Providing very healthy returns on capital investments on the plant floor.

About the Author

Mike Bacidore | Editor in Chief

Mike Bacidore is chief editor of Control Design and has been an integral part of the Endeavor Business Media editorial team since 2007. Previously, he was editorial director at Hughes Communications and a portfolio manager of the human resources and labor law areas at Wolters Kluwer. Bacidore holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MBA from Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He is an award-winning columnist, earning multiple regional and national awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors. He may be reached at [email protected]