Reducing the complexity

An open standard for process automation. By Ed Harrington

Process automation contrasts from other types of manufacturing automation in that it is ‘always-on’. Within the Oil and Gas and Utilities industries, for instance, it is crucial that plants run at peak efficiency – or else the organisations will see a dramatic decline in profits and their customers will be negatively affected.

Really, process automation control systems are central to any industry that is required to keep operations going on a constant basis. Process automation technologies, then, are fundamental in Power Generation and Distribution for converting fossil fuel, thermal, or water power to energy; in the Food and Beverage sector for making the foods we buy in supermarkets out of raw materials; in Pulp and Paper for transforming wood into paper; and in Mining Exploration for extracting minerals.

The connecting factor linking the Oil and Gas industry to Pulp and Paper, for example, is the ability to continually convert one form of resource into an end product in a way that is carefully controlled and monitored.

Given that it resonates with so many seemingly disparate industries, three years ago, a group of companies representing a variety of verticals got together to discuss the possibility of developing an open standard for process automation – each driven by the need for more flexible manufacturing solutions.

Shortly after, the Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF) was born under the guidance of The Open Group. From then on, the Forum began to lay the foundations for developing a standard that would help manufacturers overcome the main challenges they face every day. A year ago, over 90 member organisations were involved in the creation of the preliminary standard, O-PAS™ Standard, Version 1.0, which in 2019 became a full Standard of The Open Group. Here’s the story so far.

Why does process automation need an open standard?
Firstly, it’s important to clarify that industry standards for process automation are already available in the marketplace and fit-for-purpose. These include ISA 62443 for security, OPC UA for communications and information modelling, and DMTF Redfish for systems management.

As a result, we did not set out with the intention of developing something completely new – and this is why Version 1.0 of the O-PAS Standard focuses on interoperability, utilising these existing industry standards, and adopting and adapting them, to create a ‘standard of standards’. Our main goal here is to make sure that process automation control systems are secure, interoperable and scalable.

By bringing greater harmony and consistency across process automation as a whole, an open standard will allow Oil and Gas organisations, and other companies working across a variety of industries, to reduce capital and operational costs for their process control systems.

Solving the interoperability problem
More often than not, the same type of process automation equipment and processes are deployed across different sectors. Yet there are only a few suppliers providing the relevant services. These suppliers have a complete ‘stack’, running all the way from a device – like a thermostat for example – to providing information to a separate material requirements planning system.

However, these systems are proprietary and cannot be easily replaced, which leads to organisations running into obstacles. To use a tangible example, imagine that you are using a basic control system from one vendor, but you are also interested in implementing the Human Machine Interface from another. The issue of vendor lock-in means that combining the two is not an option. This is also limiting from the perspective of digital transformation given that you are unable to deploy new technological innovations if they are not yet provided by your chosen supplier.

In our quest to create a ‘standard of standards’ for process control, then, OPAF is working to identify the logical points in the supplier stack to break this chain and create a set of standard interfaces. This is not to say that we are attempting to reproduce the IP of those suppliers. Instead, we are seeking to build appropriate interfaces that will bring the end-user closer to a ‘plug-and-play’ environment, as opposed to being locked-in to just one vendor.

The digital transformation benefits
Open systems allow digital transformation initiatives to thrive as they drive innovation with little to no disturbance. Moreover, these systems reduce costs and, in turn, drive a higher ROI.

In addition, as the line between Information Technology (IT) and Operations Technology (OT) blurs, closed networks are beginning to open up, introducing new threats and expanding the cyber-attack surface for control systems. Having an open system enables Oil and Gas organisations to make sure that these systems are more secure.

Traditionally, many Oil and Gas plants and companies dealt with OT security by air-gapping their facilities, allowing for no interaction to take place outside the OT space. But the rise of new technologies including cloud computing, edge computing and wireless communication, coupled with the uptake of digital transformation projects, leaves systems at risk of being breached. This is why security is a main part of O-PAS, and it has been a main consideration in the development of the standard from day one.

A bright future
As more Oil and Gas companies, and, indeed, organisations across all kinds of vertical industries, collaborate to create an open standard for process automation control systems, we can expect to see a reduction in digital complexity. Ultimately, this will not only improve operational efficiency, but also drive innovation forward.

Ed Harrington is Forum Director, Open Process Automation™ Forum, The Open Group. The Open Process Automation Forum is an international forum of end-users, system integrators, suppliers, academia, and other standards organisations working together to develop a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable process control architecture.
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