Opto 22 at Ignition Discovery Day: Unleashing the edge

Feb. 12, 2020
"It hinges on having superior OT solutions at the edge."

By Josh Eastburn, Opto 22 director of technical marketing

During Inductive Automation’s recent Ignition Discovery Day seminar in Chicago, focused on the topic “Digital Transformation Made Easy with Ignition and MQTT,” my colleague Benson Hougland, VP of marketing and product strategy, mapped out a process for realizing the full potential of these technologies while explaining why it hinges on having superior OT solutions at the edge.

Here's my summary...

Start at the edge

As the industry pushes toward digital transformation, there are two inherent obstacles. The first is that existing automation systems are too complex; the traditional technologies for connecting IT and OT systems require cobbling together many different devices with varying security profiles, communication protocols, and licensing schemes that are difficult to manage cohesively. This adds cost and inhibits security and scalabilty. 

Fortunately, as Hougland explained, edge computing is bringing horsepower to operations technology that makes it possible to reduce this complexity. As an example, we can look at how mobile computing has evolved. Many devices and technologies have been nearly obsoleted by what the modern smartphone can do, and even older multi-function devices like PCs are used much less for common tasks. Additionally, with all the app choices available, users can pick what they need based on the tool and the task they are performing.

The same model can be applied to industrial automation, using edge devices to reduce or eliminate extraneous pieces and parts, to add security, and build systems that are maintainable over the long term. It’s not necessary to rip-and-replace the existing architecture to do this, either. Legacy PLCs, RTUs, and so on, can be preserved by using the right software at the edge to bridge the gap.

Tools like our groov EPIC combine edge-processing capabilities with multiple apps and programming options, including Ignition, and package them into an industrial platform that includes I/O, controls, networking, and visualization. With OT solutions like this at the edge, a simplified architecture can be created where sensors, field devices, and other control systems securely connect with applications like the Ignition Platform, databases, ERP systems, and cloud apps like Azure, AWS, and Watson.

Decouple for scalability

However, this is where we encounter industry problem #2, as Hougland described it: devices in the field are too tightly coupled to software applications, making managing data flow exceedingly difficult. In the typical architecture, there are multiple, insecure ports to manage along with unencrypted traffic moving all over the place.

But the pub-sub architecture of MQTT effectively decouples devices from applications, instead plugging everything into a common infrastructure, with bi-directional, highly efficient delivery of data to whoever needs it. With all devices and application data connected to the same broker, there is only one place to manage ports, user access, access rights and more.

Creating digital transformation

Hougland then described how these pieces come together in a four-step process for digital transformation:

  1. Connect I/O and legacy devices to a secure edge device, like groov EPIC
  2. Access legacy controller data at the edge with Ignition Edge’s OPC-UA drivers
  3. Convert data to MQTT at the edge with Cirrus Link’s MQTT Transmission module for Ignition Edge and send it off to an MQTT broker, like Cirrus Link’s Chariot Server or Cirrus Link’s MQTT Distributor module for Ignition Gateway
  4. Plug applications into that infrastructure with Cirrus Link’s MQTT Engine for Ignition Gateway, which subscribes to the entire system’s tags and makes all that data available in any Ignition Module, including back into OPC, if necessary.

As opposed to the traditional automation architecture, this framework scales quickly, easily, and securely to thousands or millions of tags. 

Hougland concluded his presentation with several real-world digital-transformation scenarios built on this framework, showing that, with a secure edge solution, Ignition, and MQTT with Sparkplug, automation systems can be dramatically simplified, and efficient, secure communications architectures can be created.