SCADA-PLC communication drives OPC UA

Feb. 14, 2024
Wesco’s Chris Wadsworth: Wind tunnels and discrete automotive machine manufacturing lead the innovation-application charge

Chris Wadsworth is vice president and general manager, OEM, at Wesco.

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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?

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: One change accelerating the adoption of OPC UA that may have flown under the radar is the market turning to one particular brand of supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. This brand is becoming a market leader in SCADA, and OPC UA is their primary communication method to all programmable logic controllers (PLCs).

As far as advancements, robust security policies are crucial for OPC UA to continue to be a trusted method of communication. It’s currently a secure and trusted architecture, but, as the number of connected devices grows, the need for cybersecurity becomes even more critical. Manufacturers that are looking to incorporate OPC UA, or to continue utilizing it, will need to ensure that it meets their cybersecurity needs.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: We’ve seen customers utilize OPC UA in a wide variety of interesting and innovative ways. I have had customers use OPC UA in several unique applications, such as in wind tunnels and discrete automotive machine manufacturing. The customer with the wind-tunnel application used OPC UA to communicate between the proprietary software and the tunnel controllers. The automotive manufacturer utilized OPC UA to communicate between the machine controllers and the SQL database.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: It takes away the need for software vendors having to support drivers from every PLC/controller manufacturer, which can be a huge challenge. Additionally, keeping track of and ensuring that every driver is updated is a time-consuming task. OPC UA makes a “universal” connection, no matter which controller is being used in the application. Not only is this helpful for the controller vendors, but it is also helpful for machine builders and integrators, as they only need to learn a single communication protocol. As the number of machine components, as well as the number of manufacturers, continues to grow, OPC UA will become an even more attractive option.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: The industrial Internet of things (IIoT) and other Industry 4.0 initiatives have greatly increased the number of connected devices, machines and sensors on the manufacturing floor. To maximize the value and effectiveness of these investments, all of these various devices need to “talk” to each other.

These devices, machines and sensors all might come from different vendors, each of which could have its own communication protocol. By enabling a universal connection, regardless of the controller or device vendor, OPC UA can have a major impact on companies looking to utilize IIoT, automation, greater analytics capabilities or other Industry 4.0 initiatives. Manufacturers that have already invested in these capabilities can utilize OPC UA to make managing them easier, and those that are looking to implement them might find the process much simpler by incorporating the communication protocol.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: OPC UA is useful in any application, but we think it is more useful in larger applications. A large application would typically have dozens of controllers, which are not always from the same manufacturer, and may not all communicate the same native protocols. Not surprisingly, this can present some challenges. OPC UA allows for one standard communication method, no matter what native protocol the controllers use for communication.

This greatly simplifies the overall platform communication process and makes life easier for machine builders and integrators. They only need to learn one communication protocol, and this makes managing large applications with multiple machines or devices much more straightforward.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: Typically, adding security features within software does not make the software more user-friendly. With that being said, OPC UA has adopted the widely used X.509 Certificate Standard that uses a public key format for encrypting/decrypting messages. Because this standard has been in use for more than three decades across a wide variety of both online and offline applications, most users will already be familiar with it.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: Moving forward, the implementation of artificial intelligence (AI) will affect all aspects of manufacturing, including OPC UA. It’s too early to tell the long-term effects, but we expect OPC UA to be the default communication method for most things in the manufacturing world moving into the future.

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

Chris Wadsworth, vice president and general manager, OEM, Wesco: As one of the world’s largest distributors of electrical equipment, Wesco has unique insight into OPC-certified products and how they can help meet the needs of our customers. In particular, we’ve seen several major manufacturers directly integrate OPC UA server/client capability into their programmable logic controllers. This removes the need to add third-party software for OPC UA communication, which has become a major advantage in the PLC market.

In fact, this has become so popular that the same manufacturer recently updated its hardware with dual-core processors so that one could be dedicated solely for communication. The integrated OPC UA server supports the common data access methods, as well as most security policies.

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]