OPC UA openness, integration, security and future innovations

Jan. 26, 2024
Interoperability and encryption drive increasing adoption

Veli-Pekka Ketonen is global product manager, industrial networks, at B&R Industrial Automation.

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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?

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: The primary advancements include openness, integration and security, which are pivotal in the automation industry to improve functionality, usability and lower the total cost of ownership.

OPC UA serves as a critical enabler in this transition. Just as we expect seamless connectivity between any personal computer and various peripherals, like displays or printers from different brands, the same level of interoperability is essential in industrial settings. Moreover, the encryption of data and the secure access to communication interfaces are non-negotiable requirements. OPC UA has been instrumental in this regard, doing the heavy lifting to enable machine builders to use interoperable and secure automation products.

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

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: We are continually amazed by the innovativeness of machine builders and are committed to going the extra mile to support their creativity and technical aspirations. Some of the most impressive outcomes we have observed involve solutions managing 10,000 nodes in the information model and accommodating hundreds of clients. We take great pride in enabling these high-end, ultra-reliable solutions. Our commitment is not just in providing advanced solutions but also in offering exceptional customer support to ensure the success of these complex and innovative applications.

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

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: The considerable diversity of machine components within specific industrial sectors, coupled with the frequent lack of interoperability due to the absence of standardized communication protocols, significantly hampers machine builders. This situation has led to increased costs, slower development times and vendor lock-in.

We believe that, over time, open standards prevail. This is evident also in recent developments across various industries, such as the widespread adoption of USB-C over proprietary connectors and the preference for open-standard electric-vehicle chargers instead of single-vendor solutions.

While OPC UA has begun to pave the way for unlocking potential in the automation industry, there is still important work to be done. The introduction and industry adoption of OPC UA FX (Field eXchange), aimed at standardizing field-level communication, promises to consolidate the currently fragmented landscape of over 20 industrial Ethernet protocols into a single, unified communication interface. This advancement is not just about simplifying communication; it is about breaking down the final barriers to integrating IT and OT networks, streamlining operations and fostering greater innovation in automation.

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

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: OPC UA has been a key enabler in the shift toward more connected, data-driven and automated manufacturing processes in line with Industry 4.0 and IIoT principles. Its capabilities in ensuring interoperability, secure data handling, scalability and flexibility make it indispensable in modern industrial environments.

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

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: The future of OPC UA in manufacturing operations is closely tied to several pivotal developments.

Firstly, the standardization of field buses and the industry-wide shift to OPC UA FX are essential. This transition will liberate the industry from historical complexities, setting the stage for more streamlined and efficient operations. OPC UA FX for deterministic controller-to-controller communication is already supported by our product line at B&R. As we move forward, our involvement in the OPC UA FX phase 2 standard, which will cover controller-to-device and device-to-device communication, remains a priority.

Additionally, the integration of open application programming interfaces (APIs) into OPC UA frameworks is a significant step forward. Open APIs will enable greater flexibility and interoperability, allowing for easier integration of third-party tools and applications. This openness fosters innovation and allows users to customize solutions to meet their specific needs more effectively.

Embedding artificial intelligence into automation development and user products is a remarkable opportunity. The synergy of artificial intelligence (AI) with OPC UA's secure and reliable communication framework will vastly enhance automation capabilities, making systems smarter, more adaptive and efficient.

We are excited about these developments, pushing the boundaries of what's possible in industrial automation.

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

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: The emerging trends of digitalization/artificial intelligence and individualization are shaping the way machines are designed, necessitating a shift toward greater flexibility, especially considering the long operational lifespan of these machines. Achieving this flexibility relies on foundational technical elements such as flat network architectures, API-first approaches, harmonized data descriptions and standardized device models.

Importantly, the need for flexibility transcends the size of the application; it's a universal requirement. Initially, we observed a more rapid adoption of OPC UA in larger-scale applications, due to their inherent complexity and the diverse range of challenges they present. More recently, however, there's been an increasing trend toward implementing OPC UA in smaller applications. This shift in adoption seems less about the size of the application and more about the complexity of the system's environment.

In essence, the more complex the environment, regardless of its scale, the greater the need for the interoperability and robustness offered by OPC UA.

How have the security and scalability of OPC UA made it more user-friendly?

Veli-Pekka Ketonen, global product manager, industrial networks, B&R Industrial Automation: OPC UA's security features significantly contribute to its adoption by providing reliable and secure communication, thereby instilling peace of mind among users. Furthermore, OPC UA's integration of OT and IT streamlines network architectures and simplifies the design of automation systems. For machine builders, the ease of integrating OPC UA into the development environment is crucial. B&R Automation Studio and Automation Runtime fully support OPC UA, thus facilitating a more efficient and streamlined process in machine development.

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]