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OPC UA in the smart factory

Sophie Hand explains the universal language of automation equipment – Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA)

The story of the Tower of Babel describes a time where all human beings spoke the same language. 

When the Babylonians decided to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, God stepped in and created a multitude of languages so the builders could no longer understand each other. 

The result? 

The tower was never completed.

A single, unifying language isn’t just useful when building a tower ― it is also beneficial in industrial automation environments. If equipment in a facility does not use the same communication protocol it can hinder their ability to share information.  

In the era of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), connectivity is essential to remain competitive, that’s why the Open Platform Communications Foundation developed a cross-platform protocol.

The smart factory’s interpreter

The Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA), is a machine-to-machine communication protocol for industrial automation.

 OPC UA is open-source, platform-independent, protocol-independent and comes with a very rich extensible data model.

Importantly, OPC UA was designed with cybersecurity in mind – it is secure by design, with validation, encryption and authentication already built in.

Thanks to OPC UA, equipment from different vendors can communicate, solving the interoperability pain-point for manufacturers.  

As well as vendor-to-vendor connection between programmable logic controllers (PLCs), the protocol can connect supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, manufacturing execution systems (MES) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems for a vertical view point of the factory. 

By connecting to the cloud, plant managers can remotely access information to gain an overview of the entire plant in real-time.

OPC UA offers unified connectivity in a cost-effective way, because manufacturers don’t need to alter their existing machines. 

The OPC server will convert the communication protocol of the PLC or other piece of equipment into the OPC protocol. Consequently, even small and medium-sized businesses can now benefit from complete connectivity  in their production processes. 

Because of its benefits, OPC UA is already used by 50 million machines worldwide.

There are numerous benefits to a factory where all parts and even better, all systems, can communicate. 

For example, manufacturers with cloud-connected systems can remotely control processes in the plant, which means there is no need to travel to a site for simple fixes.  If a component breaks down, the manufacturer could identify this quickly and order a replacement component, limiting expensive downtime.

Communication problems may have prevented the Tower of Babel from going ahead, but it doesn’t have to prevent your smart factory project from being successful. OPC UA provides an easy and effective way to get your entire factory talking.

Sophie Hand is, UK country manager at industrial parts supplier EU Automation.

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