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In a recent episode of the Augmented Ops podcast, Erich Barnstedt, an expert in industrial IoT with over two decades of experience at Microsoft, highlights the need for standardization of industrial data protocols in order to achieve interoperability between diverse production systems. The discussion, titled “Industrial Data Interoperability,” delves into the forces shaping these standards, and the critical role they play in enabling digital transformation at scale.
As Barndstedt explains the ways that standards have been developed and implemented in industry, he emphasizes that the path to true data interoperability in manufacturing is paved with challenges, but is essential to achieve the Industry 4.0 goals of fully interconnected manufacturing and business systems.
The Role of Standards Committees
Barnstedt highlights the important role played by standards committees, like the OPC Foundation and OASIS MQTT Technical Committee. These committees — composed of industry experts, software vendors, technologists, and other stakeholders — serve as the crucibles where the future of industrial data protocols is forged. Their work involves both the creation of new standards and the critical task of updating and refining existing ones to meet the ever-evolving demands of end users in industry.
As a longtime member of the OPC Foundation Technical Advisory Council, Barnstedt has had extensive experience with the inner workings of such groups. When asked about how they operate, he describes the committees as a battleground of ideas, where the technical minutiae matter just as much as the overarching goals of the spec. For better or worse, the discussions and debates within these groups are not always driven by the needs of end users, but can be influenced by strategic interests from the software vendors that sit on the committee. The push and pull of these interests are what shapes standards, with the stated goal of creating specifications that are robust, versatile, and capable of driving true interoperability across diverse systems.
How Standards Promote Interoperability
Interoperability between manufacturing and business systems is a central tenet of Industry 4.0, one that promises significant gains in efficiency and competitiveness for businesses that are able to achieve it. Standardized data transport protocols act as a common language, enabling disparate systems to understand each other and share information. Barnstedt remarks that "Everybody can build a snowflake. Building a snowflake is easy. But it's not going to work with anything else." Without these standards, the dream of a fully integrated production system becomes a significantly more difficult and costly task, as every manufacturer would be on their own to develop them with internal resources.
As Barnstedt explains, the practical implications of standards for both manufacturers and software vendors are immense. By establishing a common framework for interoperability, open standards enable vendors to compete in the same market, which pushes them to continuously improve the quality of their products and services. This competition drives innovation, ultimately leading to better experience for the end users. For manufacturers that are the end users of tools built on these standards, the interoperability offered enables them to rapidly integrate new technologies and processes without the concern of compatibility issues. Standards serve as the backbone of a flexible manufacturing tech stack, where manufacturers can remain agile in response to new market demands or technological advancements.
Ultimately, these standards aren’t just about facilitating communication between different machines and systems; they're about creating a cohesive and unified manufacturing sector. In a sector marked by a wide array of legacy systems and cutting-edge technologies, standards ensure that newer innovations can be integrated with existing infrastructure, bridging the gap between the old and the new. This integration is crucial for the ongoing digital transformation in manufacturing — paving the way for more advanced, data-driven operations that can achieve the full potential promised by the fourth industrial revolution.
Open Ecosystems: The Future of Interoperability
As Barnstedt emphasizes throughout the episode, “the era of the walled garden ecosystems is over.” Historically, vendors have built their products on proprietary specifications, which limits businesses to building their tech stack with only the software specifically supported by the vendor that developed the spec. He instead pushes for the adoption of non-proprietary specifications and protocols, which facilitate a level of data interoperability and system integration impossible to build with closed architectures. With an open architecture approach, manufacturers are able to easily build integrations with a potentially infinite number of third-party components.
This flexibility is vital in a landscape where technological diversity is not the exception, but the rule. An open architecture also paves the way for the incorporation of emerging technologies (like generative AI or spatial intelligence) as they come online, enabling businesses to future-proof their operations in the rapidly evolving manufacturing industry.
Barnstedt makes it clear that he believes standards committees and the specifications they develop will play a central role in driving the creation of this open tech ecosystem. By building their standards with a focus on openness and interoperability, these committees will help enable an ecosystem where data and systems can freely exchange data. Without these open standards, manufacturers will continue to spin their wheels in integration hell as they attempt to realize the gains promised by Industry 4.0.
Industrial Data Interoperability
Check out the full podcast episode for further insights into the inner workings of standards committees, the importance of interoperability, and how they are shaping the future of frontline operations.