Gutenberg-Style Innovation for Manufacturing
Imagine you wrote a masterpiece of literary fiction or a detailed plan for financial success. You can’t wait to share your work with the world. But there’s a problem. In this universe, in this reality, computers have no way to share documents with each other. To give a copy to your best friend, you must set up your computer next to their computer and re-enter that masterpiece line by line. When it’s ready for broader publication, the publisher’s job is to type up new copies for everyone who wants to read it. An industry of “integrators” is created to help.
These resources work from a specification, or best practices, to try to reassemble the intent of your original, brilliant publication—or their own version of it. But it requires repeated rework, essentially starting with a blank slate every time, and the results aren’t in sync with the source material.
This may sound absurd, but it is close to the reality in manufacturing technology. Things improved slightly in the early 2000s, as reproducible templates emerged within proprietary platforms.
Reuse became possible within a particular vendor’s ecosystem, but this often required a homogeneous architecture that started at the PLC and moved up through layers of supporting technology that was required.
And that’s where innovation stopped. It’s like Microsoft Word 1.0 for DOS—without a Word-Perfect translator. And no one is demanding that the situation improve.
The OPC Foundation’s Unified Architecture (OPC UA) specification allows for the creation of non-proprietary information models—structures that describe critical manufacturing data that aren’t tied to a particular vendor’s ecosystem (hardware, firmware, software). But it so far hasn’t solved the problem of distribution. If adopted, we can finally have some interoperability. But to date, we haven’t had the ability to exchange those information models.
Enter the new OPC and CESMII joint working group, “UA for Cloud Library.” This group will evolve the OPC UA specification to allow information models designed on a local server to be detached from that server’s namespace array, serialized into a modern exchange format (JSON), hosted for distribution in a cloud-based library, fetched by a remote server and attached to the server’s namespace, ready for reuse. The ability to publish, copy and reuse information models outside of a vendor’s proprietary ecosystem will finally become a reality.
The Gutenberg Connection
This point in manufacturing history can be compared to the Gutenberg printing press in literary history. This innovation will dramatically change information distribution. We will finally have the ability to distribute information models in a fashion that anyone can reuse without having to create them from scratch each time.
A new industry around authoritative publication of common data structures will be possible, enabling rapid dissemination of foundational elements for innovation. New work can build off existing work. Manufacturers can demand structured information from suppliers and OEMs in a reliable format. System integrators can accelerate through initial modeling and begin to focus on delivering information value in ways that are insightful and actionable.
For too long, manufacturers have been hampered by vendor lock-in, quirky in-house design conventions and the manual effort necessary to implement and re-implement information systems. The years of innovation by the OPC Foundation and the vision of CESMII, along with members of both organizations, are leading the way into a better future for manufacturing.