Digitization Open Source Technologies Open Access to Valuable Information

Author / Editor: Frank Jablonski* / Ahlam Rais

The digitization train is picking up speed and many companies in the process industry have already jumped on board to gain a competitive edge through a deeper understanding of their production and a better overview of their various systems and locations. In this process, more and more companies are exploiting the fast and pragmatic approaches offered by open-source software. Automation experts, such as those from Wago Kontakttechnik, in a team with system integrators combine sensor systems, gateways, container applications and cloud computing to extract even more information from company processes.

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More and more companies are exploiting the fast and pragmatic approaches offered by open-source software. Wago combines sensor systems, gateways, container and cloud computing.
More and more companies are exploiting the fast and pragmatic approaches offered by open-source software. Wago combines sensor systems, gateways, container and cloud computing.
(Source: ©Maksym Yemelyanov - stock.adobe.com)

The old familiar phrase “You can't control it until you can measure it” is currently experiencing a revival thanks to the possibilities offered by IoT and cloud computing. Whereas the phrase used to apply more to the core process and its control, it is now also being applied a level higher: A number of optimization approaches in today's process industry are only possible when data is aggregated at a higher level and put in relation to one another. Status data of processes, parameters of pumps and compressors or energy consumption for different assets opens the floodgates for identifying optimization approaches with comparison of different production lines or determining deviations in process variables across different locations. Measured values are being increasingly used not only to control the actual process, but also act as a sharp sword for cutting avoidable costs both for operation and maintenance of plants and systems.

The desire by management to have transparency and comparability is as old as plant automation itself. Until now however, it was not meaningful to collect and process the enormous volumes of data involved. This is changing in the course of digitization and is gaining momentum. One reason behind this is that there are now established cloud providers on the market who can also meet the requirements and needs posed by industrial applications. An example of this is Linde Engineering, a globally operating EPC that uses the services of the software provider Osisoft to an ever increasing degree. Together with the IT service provider a project was recently competed in which 130 systems in 15 different countries were operated from one single control room.

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Over this course of this project, Linde installed field sensors in the systems of a wide range of its customers and provided edge devices and cloud connectivity services to the users. Algorithms can now sort out any anomalies from the operating data received and supply dashboards. The result is that experts can then use this information to predict preventive maintenance requirements and define optimal operating settings. Additionally, one IIoT platform can monitor multiple applications, including engines, and analyze energy consumption – and more are being developed.

Economical Open-Source Applications

The great challenge for such projects is providing efficient and secure integration of the specific, individual data in the cloud. Indeed, there are other major service providers besides Osisoft that undertake this type of integration in concert with the user. Many companies however shy away from committing to just one provider. By contrast, an increasing trend has recently been observed toward individual and cost-effective solutions with freely available applications. Troy Sensing and Kurt Braun of Wago USA work closely with a number of different providers in the process industry in the eastern US. Both are experts in transporting data from the field level to the cloud and, thus, onto the monitors of management. As trailblazers in the USA they have observed for some time now that companies are looking for fast and pragmatic ways to get more information out of processes while at the same time shying away from proprietary solutions. They have had good experience with open-source technology in a number of projects.

We have many customers who wish to add further functions to their existing control system. We therefore started a while back to examine containerization solutions that can resolve this problem.

Kurt Braun, Wago USA

Based on his experience, a new automation environment has come into being in which it is expected that the PLC is connected with the Internet and compatible with basic technologies of the IoT, such as MQTT, Braun continues. This approach does, however, require a different framework than a typical industrial fieldbus protocol can provide. Consequently, as he has observed, more and more solutions and practices are being adapted from the IT world in the USA. A number of additional security layers are applied to enable them to communicate securely outside the firewall. Programmable logic controllers manage secure log-in data and encryption, as well as isolation for less secure protocols such as Modbus or EthernetIP.

“The fact that IIoT solutions are being strongly driven by the MQTT protocol on the US market is because it is secure and easy to use and is well understood by most destinations and endpoints. Software such as Docker offers the isolation that IT groups require, while Node-RED e.g. helps manage life cycles. Working together, these tools form a very powerful and highly functional system“ relates Sensing. This trend is backed up by the fact that each one of these technologies is an open-source solution, meaning that they can be used without any license fees and that they can be continuously upgraded to meet and keep pace with in­dustrial and safety requirements. Sensing: “This presents a unique opportunity for Wago to host these programs on our hardware. We are indeed proud of this and work hard to ensure that this continues to be so”.

The Generational Change Will Accelerate Transformation

To a certain extent, the use of open-source applications in major sectors of the process industry, which used to be unthinkable, can also be attributed to a generation change in the IT world. Automation in the US is thus reacting to the new capabilities and work methods of the IT developers. Node-RED is a good example of this. Using this platform it is extremely easy to create a JavaScript-based application layer and use this on corresponding hardware.

The days of isolated writing of code are a thing of the past. Anyone who has access to a video platform such as YouTube can learn the basics, and once you have acquired these skills you have a very powerful tool at your fingertips.

Troy Sensing, Wago USA

“I predict that automation will continue to modularize in this way and that in the near future it will resemble more a mosaic of tools than a traditional run-time environment”, says Sensing, explaining his view of the future.

“But today it is still a challenge when most control system technicians in the user companies are not familiar with topics such as Node-RED and containerization. Their daily focus is directed more toward the control of systems and plants. This is where we will require a learning curve in order to familiarize them with modern IoT technologies“, points out Braun.

Until this occurs, opportunity will continue to knock for inte­grators, who can display their strengths particularly in such situations and who implement digitization projects generally in an agile and cooperative manner. They are the intermediaries between gateway providers such as Wago, cloud providers and the end users. Kapsch BusinessCom AG is such an integrator. The Austrian company creates digitization concepts and implements these together with international customers. This involves connectivity and orchestrating of machines and systems, smart sensing and inline quality assurance, along with upgrading and improving machines.

Roland Ambrosch heads the Digital Factory sector at Kapsch and has a wealth of experience with containerization: “We can use this method to achieve excellent standardization and modularization – in a wide range of applications and at any time. For example, if functions has to be enhanced at a later time, containerization would be a good solution. Microservice architectures can also be subsequently enhanced well”, declares Ambrosch.

Broad Application of Container Solutions

The group of users here is not limited to any certain sector but includes suppliers and end users alike: “Machine manufacturers approach us because they wish to digitize their products to be able to provide their customers with new services and new business models. Production companies from different process industries are also launching projects aimed at increasing OEE, improving energy management or enhancing efficiency“, states Ambrosch and continues by declaring that this would go off very efficiently in a combination of open-source software and the use of data containers. In his view, the trend toward containerization is primarily based on technology:

It is more manageable when a central unit does not have to be processed in a distributed structure, but rather when a central unit retrieves distributed data.

Roland Ambrosch, Kapsch

Security would also be enhanced when work is conducted on a line or plant basis.

A further benefit would be that once a standardized container has been generated it can be copied whenever needed so that managing the new information landscape remains simple, even during the operations phase. The unanimous view of the experts is that containerization knowledge has since become a basic prerequisite for anyone working in IT. Docker, for example, was developed specifically as an abstraction and isolation tool to keep application elements in a sandbox. The Wago edge controller can execute AWS Greengrass Core in a Docker container and control exposure to other application levels such as the PLC runtime or protocols such as OPC-UA. This means that any penetration into the container is restricted to and kept in that container. Although this can occur in a non-secure manner, the provision of applications in Docker is on the whole more secure than applications that run directly on the host.

A further argument in favor of the use of Docker and similar software: A containerized solution offers the possibility of using standard systems to provide and maintain different software. This also applies to IT cyber security applications. This enables the user to keep the operating system and every individual container up to date and to quickly close any gaps that may arise. Take firmware updates for example: Without containers the entire project would have to be recompiled. Every system in operation receives a “piece” of the new software that contains the new firmware. If, on the other hand, the machine controller is supplied containerized, the system can be kept up to date through deployment of the firmware – a change that does not apply to the IEC sector, i.e., classic automation.

All in all, several overall benefits are yielded above and beyond the functionality of the programs. Costs are reduced and become more predictable. As a rule, open-source programs are well maintained and should contributions from specific users for development of the software become necessary over the course of the project, this not only represents additional work but is also a modern form of marketing: Awareness within the community is heightened and new contacts and network links are created. Sensing: “If you can select the right tool for the specific task at hand instead of having to adapt the tool to the task, you will always get better and better results“.

* *F. Jablonski, mylk+honey, Würzburg/Germany, Phone: +49-170-3438828