Mixed models to persist at IT/OT interface

Jan. 18, 2016
As cloud standards gain currency, OPC bridges past and future
“Instead of starting with the standard and building up, the technology allows you to tackle your problem top-down.” Mark Carrier of National Oilwell Varco on the improved capabilities of today’s IIoT middleware solutions.

While much has been written of the ongoing convergence of the industrial information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) domains, there remains at this interface an array of standards and models for application integration originally developed on both sides of the divide. On the one hand are data-centric middleware platforms based on such standards as DDS; on the other are platforms based largely on OPC UA, the data interoperability standard developed to bring order to the industrial automation space.

Indeed, one rare point of consensus among industry practitioners convened for a panel discussion at the Smart Industry 2015 conference in Chicago is that heterogeneity of standards and models at this intersection is likely to persist for some time to come, and there will be plenty of room and need for both approaches in tomorrow’s industrial Internet of things (IIoT) architectures.

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“Finding the right tools to fit” is a challenge, noted Scott Masker, business system engineer for fastener manufacturer MacLean-Fogg, adding that a single tool will seldom meet all of one’s needs. “It’s still going to be piecemeal with a lot of different technologies,” he said. “It’s not just one standard that’s going to rule them all.”

Joining Masker on the panel were his colleague and application developer Chris Misztur as well as David Barnett, vice president, products and markets for integration platform developer RTI; Mark Carrier, systems architect for National Oilwell Varco; and Tony Paine, CEO of platform developer and integrator Kepware. More details on the MacLean-Fogg project are in the sidebar article below.

Real-time distributed data

Real Time Innovators (RTI) provides a connectivity platform called Connext, which is built on DDS. According to Barnett, the DDS standard provides a way to distribute and share real-time data across Internet-based systems. “So it’s used to distribute data from sensors to applications that do real-time control, or perhaps to a data analytics application in the cloud,” noted Barnett in his opening remarks.

Carrier, chief system architect for National Oilwell Varco’s operational networks, explained that his company manufactures large pieces of drilling equipment and make pretty much everything that “drills holes in the ground” ranging from drills and derricks to oil field production technologies and services. The company has recently invested $100 million to develop next-generation process automation platforms designed to help deal with the growing knowledge gap between the wave of retiring oilfield workers and the less seasoned employees replacing them. The company settled on DDS to provide the data-centric communications infrastructure among system components.

Enterprise-wide interoperability

Like Carrier, MacLean-Fogg’s Masker and Misztur are responsible for connecting their enterprise business and operational/production systems. To get a handle on a diversity of production equipment complicated by a legacy of company acquisitions, Masker and Misztur rely on Kepware’s platform to help them close gaps and achieve the integration MacLean-Fogg’s leadership understands it needs for continued business success.

Kepware’s Paine explained MacLean-Fogg has deployed his company’s KEPServerEX platform that “genericizes access and control to a wide variety of systems and applications you’re going to find in an industrial setting. These things could be devices. They could be applications. They could be the infrastructure that ties the things together,” said Paine, noting that Kepware can pull almost anything on to its platform with the 200-plus protocols and standards it supports.


With Kepware, Masker said that MacLean-Fogg had found the hub they needed to facilitate communication between the company’s industrial and business networks. “The industrial Internet of things (IIoT) is where the worlds of manufacturing-specific protocols and cloud communications protocols are really coming together,” added Kepware’s Paine.

Paine said companies continue to purchase disparate systems, and now they’re getting them to work together. “They’re doing it through hardware and networking, and then they want to be able to tie into a bank of applications for visualization and reporting,” said Paine.

And while integration still requires knowledge of multiple models and standards, it is easier today than it used to be, said MacLean-Fogg’s Masker. “It used to be very hard to hard to integrate; very difficult at times. So we didn’t do it much.”

“Orienting technology differently” has also improved things, added Carrier. “Instead of starting with the standard and building up, the technology allows you to tackle your problem top-down. You can actually look at it and ask: ’What is the problem I’m trying to solve?’”

MacLean-Fogg integrates plant-floor, ERP systems

Open standards and software are facilitating an industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) implementation at a Mundelein, Ill., conglomerate seeking a competitive edge in components manufacturing.

MacLean-Fogg is a 90-year-old manufacturer of precision fasteners, lug nuts and power systems. To generate production data for executive management and empower workers with lean manufacturing tools, the firm is in the midst of an enterprise resources planning (ERP) implementation that also will eliminate redundant shop floor activities and help workers implement lean-manufacturing projects.

“They’re doers and thinkers now,” said developer Chris Misztur (right in image) in reference to shop-floor workers. They need real-time production information to be effective, and they need to be freed from redundant activities, such as manually weighing and keeping paper logs of throughput data on work-in-process. Similarly, upper management needs information on overall equipment effectiveness and order-fulfillment lead times, which currently is not available. To satisfy the needs of both constituencies, the firm’s IT professionals undertook a six-month development project to migrate data from controls and devices in the plant network up to an Oracle JD Edwards ERP system.

PLCs from multiple vendors using various standards are found in MacLean-Fogg’s 16 production facilities. Less than half the equipment is connected to the enterprise, and some machines lack electronic controls. To bridge the gap, developers commissioned Kepware to implement OPC UA for machine-to-machine communications. Microsoft BizTalk was selected as middleware to the Oracle JD Edwards system.

To push data from the enterprise level to mobile apps, developers opted for the MQTT protocol, a lightweight publish-subscribe messaging protocol also used by Facebook Messenger and other systems. Short for message queue telemetry transport, MQTT offers several advantages over HTTP, explained Misztur and Scott Masker (left in picture), MacLean-Fogg’s business systems engineer. They include faster response and throughput, low battery and bandwidth use, as well as integration with enterprise messaging middleware to facilitate pushing data to mobile apps. MQTT also works well when connectivity is intermittent, and multiple subscriptions can be multiplexed over one connection.

Accurate counting of those high-throughput parts is one of the basic project tasks, and Masker says that information can be leveraged for other uses. For example, unit output is indicative of tool wear, and that information can be used for predictive maintenance of machine tools and other war components.

With C-suite support, MacLean-Fogg’s IoT initiative has fostered greater collaboration between operations personnel and IT professionals. “You have to have executive backing,” allowed Masker, but buy-in from controls engineers and other personnel will be crucial for the project’s long-term viability. “If the people own it, they’re going to take care of it,” he said. “If it’s just an IT initiative, it’s going to whither on the vine.”

The initiative also has elevated the status of MacLean-Fogg’s IT professional, added Misztur. “IT no longer is a support division,” he said. “It can add value to the organization.”                                                                              --Kevin Higgins