The modern industrial age relies on seamless communication between the various machines and devices on the factory floor. Additionally, these machines also communicate with computers and remote databases. This interconnectivity enables businesses to capture data in a secure, consistent way.

To make the interaction between the different machines possible, the Open Platform Communications (OPC) Foundation created and instituted the automation communication standard. The standard platform – OPC Classic – allows for machine interoperability, facilitating automation on the factory floor via the Microsoft Windows system.

However, the communication between machines can be problematic when the different pieces of equipment, edge devices, and servers run on different system architectures. In addition, it would require significant technical knowledge on the manufacturer’s part to benefit from the interconnectivity adequately.

After all, one would need a Windows PC to transfer data from the machine input. Unfortunately, this requires hardware setup, continuous updates, and labor to maintain and secure the system, making OPC Classic cumbersome for many businesses.

This led to the development of a more straightforward, more open, and inclusive standard – OPC UA. As a result, modern manufacturing operations have adopted the OPC UA standard in their production systems, optimizing production and improving efficiency.

In this post, we’ll discuss the OPC UA standard and how manufacturers are using OPC UA to connect the systems and machines on their shop floor.

What is OPC UA?

OPC UA stands for Open Platform Communication - Unified Architecture and is a communication standard that facilitates secure data exchange between clients and servers irrespective of their underlying system architecture. In other words, it does the job of the classic OPC and expands this capability by facilitating secure information transfer regardless of a machine’s operating system.

Many modern manufacturing entities are fitted with various types of equipment, each running on different systems. OPC UA enables simple, secure, and seamless interoperability between these machines and the manufacturing systems used by the business. This is mainly because UA uses Transmission Control Protocol / Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) instead of Windows COM/DCOM.

Simply put, OPC UA allows machines and devices to communicate securely over the internet. This cuts out reliance on Microsoft’s system, promoting platform-independent interoperability.

Furthermore, the open interface standard does more than facilitate data transfer. Unlike the original OPC, the unified architecture version semantically describes the data in a machine-readable format. This allows machines to communicate with each other much more efficiently compared to operations running OPC Classic.

OPC UA applications in manufacturing

Manufacturing businesses apply the communication standard in various ways. Some of these include:

  • Factory equipment and device diagnostics

  • Remote machine management

  • Support for remote workers

  • Strengthened industrial security measures

  • Transferring equipment data to the cloud via the industrial internet of things (IIoT)

  • OPC UA informs graphical user interface design for manufacturing enterprise digital tools

The impact of OPC UA on Industry 4.0

One of the core tenants of Industry 4.0 is connectivity and communication between industrial equipment, providing vital information manufacturers leverage for more efficient production processes. However, the challenge lies in the need for various dissimilar devices to communicate in a similar language.

OPC UA provides a viable and robust platform for secure and standardized data transfer among devices and machines.

Here’s how the industrial data transfer standard impacts Industry 4.0:

Tighter data security: The Windows COM/DCOM platform is particularly vulnerable to system attacks. On the other hand, OPC UA facilitates better data security due to its built-in encryption that renders reliance on network firewalls unnecessary.

The standard ensures cross-platform data security via major security protocols. For instance, x.509 handles authentication and data encryption.

Openness and scalability opportunities: The OPC UA source code is available under the open-source license. As a result, this gives capable manufacturers a chance to integrate their supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems for a more bespoke solution.

In addition, OPC UA’s standard nature assures manufacturers that the system will still be in industry-wide use for the foreseeable future.

Decentralized information flow: Industry 4.0 relies on free information flow between the different devices. OPC UA facilitates this by doing away with the hierarchically structured data flow in industrial systems. Instead, this standard allows manufacturers to use more flexible data modeling structures.

Benefits of connecting machines and IoT devices

Manufacturing businesses kit their factories with internet-enabled devices to reap the benefits of the industrial internet of things (IIoT).

The advantages include:

  • Production efficiency due to automation: Communication amongst machinery over the OPC UA platform allows manufacturers to automate data collection. This eliminates the need for human input, ensuring production data is consistently and accurately collected. Additionally, automation eliminates different types of waste, making the production processes more efficient.

  • Informed decision-making: Smart factories generate a significant amount of data from connected devices on the shop floor. Supervisors are then able to analyze this data to identify bottlenecks or inefficiencies within their operations, enabling them to make better-informed decisions top improve production processes.

  • Predictive maintenance: Machine downtime can be one of the greatest sources of inefficiencies within a manufacturing facility. According to Aberdeen Research Group, the average cost per hour of downtime across all manufacturing industries is over $260,000. This makes it more important than ever for businesses to stay on top of their equipment maintenance schedules and identify when machines require maintenance, before they go down in the first place.

When it comes to connecting machines and other industrial equipment, Tulip offers a variety of solutions. Both our Edge MC and Edge I/O devices offer powerful machine monitoring capabilities with native support for OPC UA as well as Node-RED.

Using Tulip’s edge devices, manufacturers are able to easily connect any IoT device or machine to our platform, enabling streamlined data collection and real-time monitoring of shop floor activities.

If you’re interested in learning how you can leverage Tulip’s native edge capabilities across your operations, reach out to a member of our team today!

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