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What is OPC UA and why is it essential for industrial automation

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To better compete globally, manufacturers have to become more agile, take advantage of new technologies, and transform themselves without sacrificing or replacing their existing investments. It is a difficult problem to navigate.

Fortunately, the Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA). is helping make this challenge a little easier for manufacturers by simplifying machine to machine (M2M) communication. OPC UA is a freely available communication protocol designed specifically for industrial automation. It enables information and data exchange on devices within machines, between machines, and from machines to systems. OPC UA bridges the divide between information technology and operational technology. 

In other words, companies can’t realize the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industry 4.0 without OPC UA. And for smaller companies that don’t have massive budgets to invest in more modern technologies, OPC UA provides an easier method to leverage the data they are already likely generating from existing technologies, especially machine vision. 

There are, of course, other communications protocols for industrial automation. But most of those happen to be vendor specific, such as PROFINET for Siemens PLCs or iQSS for Mitsubishi PLCs. OPC UA, however, is an open cross-platform protocol meaning that it works on any operating system, including Linux, Windows, Android, or iOS. And because it’s based on a service-oriented architecture and APIs, it makes it easy to integrate on an application or device. 

OPC UA is an evolution of the original OPC standard, which only worked on Microsoft’s Windows-based devices. OPC UA, though, was designed to enable manufacturers to take advantage of all the modern technology that helps create a smart factory: mobile devices, big data, machine learning, machine vision, artificial intelligence and deep learning, predictive maintenance, and more. Given the sheer number of machines and devices and systems within a modern manufacturing facility or a logistics operation, OPC UA is the means to connect these silo'd islands. 

According to the publication iot for all, enterprise resource planning (ERP) applications have been implemented to fulfill numerous tasks in manufacturing such as order management and processing, data collection, planning on an enterprise production level, and business process management. 

“When you need to speed up processes, reduce manual labor and errors, and move faster between steps, grabbing real-time data as close as possible to the source, which can be from a particular production line or even a device, an integration of machine data via OPC UA to the ERP system is revolutionary,” they write. 

That’s because the integration of data from a vision system on the production line into an ERP system, for example, allows users to access that data in a system they are already familiar and comfortable with, which in turn speeds up that data’s usefulness. And that helps speed the adoption of Industry 4.0. 

Learn how Cognex is now leveraging OPC UA in its In-Sight Vision Systems to enable Industry 4.0.

 

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