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Car Plant Production Line From Above

The rise of Industry 4.0 has transformed the manufacturing industry, making it imperative to connect factories and plants with their disparate data sources to maintain a competitive edge. Manufacturers can no longer be limited by proprietary technology and siloed data. To truly innovate, manufacturers know that every aspect of their operations—from the machines on their factory floor to the data in their on-premises databases and systems—must integrate and operate seamlessly. When we first began developing Microsoft’s approach to industrial IoT (IIoT), we knew openness would be foundational.

For over two decades we’ve relied on the Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture (OPC UA) standard to connect legacy equipment, systems, and data. We first partnered with the OPC Foundation in 1994 to begin developing a common set of standards manufacturers could use to break free of vendor constraints and siloes. This partnership has continued and taken on new urgency as more manufacturers leverage the cloud to connect, manage, and optimize their different solutions.

Although OPC UA is not a requirement for companies to use Microsoft products, it’s an important factor for many that do, as well as a critical part of our openness approach. By aligning with this standard, we believe manufacturers can free themselves from vendor lock-in.

3 benefits of standardizing with OPC UA

For us, OPC UA is more than just a protocol. It is a concrete set of benefits we use to help customers transform their business processes and meet the needs of Industry 4.0 in three key ways:

  • Interoperability: The ability to link different machines, systems, and entire factories is a requirement for modern manufacturers. This means helping customers break out of the “walled garden” approach that has defined the manufacturing industry for decades by building tools that make open communication possible between disparate technologies.
  • Data model standardization: Thorough data analysis helps uncover new opportunities and efficiencies and create greater business value. We help manufacturers do this by not only linking their different technologies but also standardizing the data models from those various sources. This allows them to incorporate telemetry from these data models into their business processes.
  • Security: As manufacturers become more connected and generate more data, securing this information and its sources has become vital. This is especially important for physical machines which may be vulnerable to tampering. By removing proprietary barriers and simplifying access, we help customers manage permissions, authenticate users, and encrypt data. This makes it easier for them to secure their entire system using redundant layers of defense mechanisms, a principle referred to as “defense in depth.”

How OPC UA complements our openness strategy

In using OPC UA as a key component to guide our openness strategy, we give our customers a framework for creating more flexible, efficient, and sustainable business models.

Manufacturing data can remain relevant for decades, which means it can become an expensive liability. OPC UA solves this challenge through data standardization. By using open data formats and open-source tools, customers can “future proof” their data. This level of openness makes it possible for manufacturers to access data 40 years from now, even if the company that is responsible for the data now goes out of business in the future.

And because OPC UA is built on interoperability, manufacturers can easily break free of the obstacles set by proprietary technology. Their systems and information will all work together, regardless of their location or type. This makes it possible for manufacturers to manage all operations and view all data through a single dashboard, allowing them to achieve new levels of connectivity.

These benefits create yet another advantage: With fewer dependencies, manufacturers are free to choose the tools and solutions that work best for them—not just those within the same ecosystem. This helps reduce costs, optimize business value, and increase competitiveness.

How Bühler is leveraging OPC UA

Bühler Group, a leader in food processing and die-casting technology, began using Azure IoT alongside the OPC UA standard to increase interoperability among its equipment and systems. Its customers manage a wide variety of products from several manufacturers, and Bühler wanted to give them control of everything through a unified platform. OPC UA provided Bühler’s customers with a universally compatible protocol that now allows them to connect and manage their equipment from a single point, improving information location, employee training, and productivity.

“The use of industry standards like OPC UA promotes interoperability between suppliers and enables them to work better together,” explains Robert Cuny, IoT program manager at Bühler. “It opens the door to develop solutions that drive efficiency across the entire value chain rather than a single machine.”

OPC UA is a powerful tool for helping manufacturers embrace more nimble, open strategies and transform their businesses for Industry 4.0. Learn more about OPC UA and how Microsoft manufacturing IoT is using it to create additional value across the IIoT space.