When Germany’s Industrie 4.0 initiative was first announced in 2011, the concept seemed futuristic yet attainable. It was founded on four principles: interoperability of machines, sensors, devices and people; information transparency; the ability of machines and systems to assist people; and, the ability of organizations to make decentralized decisions.
Since then, the Internet of Things (IoT) has moved rapidly, and work is rich with use cases that range from automobile companies being able to reduce the number of product configurations they produce for end consumers, thereby economizing production; to inventory stock pickers wearing headsets that present information through see-through displays which help them locate items quicker, while also reducing picking errors by 40%.
For the electronics industry, IoT and initiatives like Industrie 4.0 pay off in multiple ways. On the revenue side, the explosion of IoT generates market demand for electronically activated machines, sensors and instrumentation. On the manufacturing side, the electronics industry itself is adopting IoT to automate and to optimize factories.
Unfortunately, the end-to-end linkages that move the information that is needed for seamless IoT can’t happen unless diverse standards for IoT communications are reconciled.
Presently, there is a divide between IoT device and equipment manufacturers that also includes the electronics industry. Some manufacturers produce devices that conform to a DDS standard (data distribution service), and others produce IoT devices and equipment that use the OPC UA standard (OPC unified architecture).
The two connectivity platforms excel in different areas. OP CUA works great as a communications protocol in local environments that use close-in communications as you might find in a manufacturing plant that is running a few programmable logic controller (PLC) machines on the floor that must communicate with each other. At the other end of the spectrum are environments where thousands of distributed PLC machines are running in diverse geographic locations. This is where DDS is the communications protocol of choice because of its ability to handle both scalability and failover over a broad range of distributed machines.
In today’s manufacturing environments, whether they are the factories of electronics companies or the factories of the customers that electronics companies provide products to, both close-in and geographically disseminated and distributed machine-to-machine and machine-to-man communications are needed. The bottom line is that for the Industrie 4.0 vision to unfold, diverse communications standards such as OP CUA and DDS must come together—and they must do so in a way so that the equipment that is already manufactured or that is being manufactured doesn’t have to be retrofitted to work with a revised set of protocols.
“Customers that use DDS and OPC UA for IoT applications both want this, and our job is to work together so that both protocols can interoperate, and that is exactly what we are doing,”
said Thomas Burke, president and executive director of the OPC Foundation. “More than anything, we want to create an environment for IoT so that it doesn’t matter whether your company is operating on DDS or OPC UA for its IoT communications. Either protocol can serve as a ‘ladder’ into a universal gateway that will support connectivity between the two.”
The result has been a partnership between OPC UA’s Object Management Group and the OPC Foundation. Both have announced a collaborative strategy to work towards interoperability for the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) together with the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), Industrie 4.0 and leading IIoT vendors. As the leading IoT standards organizations, the Object Management Group and the OPC Foundation have also developed a joint technical document for DDS and OPC UA.
While developing the OPCUA/DDS universal gateway is far from finished, the promise that IoT investments will be preserved with this universal gateway that can use either DDS or OP CA eases the minds of corporate decision makers who have either been hedging bets on which protocol will survive, or waiting on the sideline until the protocol issue is resolved.
This was what prompted Stan Schneider, CEO at Real Time Innovations, an IoT technology company, to say, “What we want to say to the IT community is that DDS and OPC UA are not competing with each other as technologies, although there might have been some perceptions that we were”—and it is good news for the electronics industry, which both sells and uses IoT.