New Initiative Takes OPC UA Out to Field Devices

Rockwell Automation has joined automation leaders in an OPC Foundation initiative to extend OPC UA out to field devices. The goal is to provide vendor-neutral, end-to-end interoperability beyond the plant.

Rockwell Automation and a group of automation organizations have joined an OPC Foundation initiative to extend the OPC UA protocol. Specifically, a series of working groups has formed to bring the OPC UA protocol’s vendor-independent, end-to-end interoperability out to devices in the field. The initiative plans to address use cases not currently in scope for EtherNet/IP. The goal is to help simplify other use cases—especially in multi-vendor, controller-to-controller environments and for the vertical integration of field devices.

Rockwell Automation, OPC Foundation, OPC UA, field devices, Ethernet/IP, networking

Here are the logos of the companies involved in the initiative to bring OPC UA to field devices. (Image source: Rockwell Automation)

Rockwell sees the need to extend OPC UA as part of the build-out of advanced manufacturing. “Smart manufacturing is making a number of things more relevant. Flexible manufacturing applications drive flexible communications. And analytics require more interaction between devices and software and devices and the cloud,” Paul Brooks, business development manager for networks at Rockwell Automation, told Design News. As we look at that changing dynamic, we see places where OPC UA can add value. We’ve moved, and the OPC Foundation has moved, and we find ourselves in the middle.”

The companies involved in the initiative include: ABB, Beckhoff, Bosch-Rexroth, B&R, Cisco, Hilscher, Hirschmann, Huawei, Intel, Kalycito, KUKA, Mitsubishi Electric, Molex, Moxa, Omron, Phoenix Contact, Pilz, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric, Siemens, TTTech, Wago, and Yokogawa.

Building the Protocol Out to Field Devices

In a statement, Rockwell noted that the company is the primary author of the EtherNet/IP specifications and understands that EtherNet/IP users may see compatibility risks in technology developed for a different ecosystem. Rockwell intends to mitigate these risks through both its ongoing development of EtherNet/IP and its intentions for the OPC UA protocol. “We’ve been a member of OPC since it was founded. We were part of writing the specifications,” said Brooks. “We use OPC UA in many of our communications devices. We’ve been on this journey for 14 or 15 years.”

OPC UA is generally considered an inherently secure protocol, which is one of the advantages when taking it beyond the plant wall. “The OPC Foundation was one of the first organizations to bake security into the protocol,” said Brooks. “OPC UA is more present in software than other Ethernet protocols. We need to make sure all of the use cases include controller-device communications that get included into the analysis, and we need to make sure the security offering from OPC UA is sufficient down to the device.”

The Details and Priorities of the Initiative

Rockwell Automation’s priorities within the new OPC Foundation initiative include working to help ensure the following:

  • OPC UA specifications are written with the same level of rigor and completeness as the EtherNet/IP specifications.
  • Time-sensitive networking (TSN) is commonly applied across the OPC UA, EtherNet/IP, and PROFINET protocols, so all three can coexist on a common TSN-based network.
  • OPC UA pub/sub technology is implemented in a way that allows existing EtherNet/IP installations to support OPC UA devices.
  • OPC UA hardware requirements allow the protocol to be deployed on hardware platforms that are common in today’s EtherNet/IP components.
  • OPC UA software requirements allow the protocol to be deployed within current EtherNet/IP-centric software tools without significant changes to user workflows.
  • Conformance test practices mandated for EtherNet/IP reflect the necessary requirements for OPC UA conformance testing.

Brooks noted that extending the OPC UA protocol out to field devices will be entirely up to each customer. “Our objective is that our customers get to choose when it use the technology rather than the technology making the decision,” said Brooks. “So, we build it and demonstrate its value to our customers. Then it’s up to them.”

Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years, he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.

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