Digital Factory

Why the Digital Factory is now within everyone’s reach

Georgii KapanadzeProducts and Solutions 2 Comments

To move on to Industry 4.0 and a Digital Factory, you need to bridge industrial assets, people and work processes. And to bridge all that, you need strong data gathering, integration and networking. Everything must be interconnected and interoperable.

The shopfloor and the business software worlds should be tightly connected but, developing an integration solution between them has traditionally been associated with high costs.

CB Digital Factory can make building a custom integration solution a possibility for small and medium-sized manufacturers who require a flexible, reliable solution, with attractive, unbeatable pricing.

When was the last time you bought something from a craftsman?

While these skilled craft workers only target the low-volume and high-cost end of the market these days, this was the only type of manufacturing that existed for most of human history.

From Industry 1.0 to Industry 3.0

Technological developments at the end of the 18th century allowed humanity to harness steam power. This led to a huge increase in worker productivity as manufacturing moved away from hand production methods and into mechanical production.

Industry evolution

Towards the end of the 19th century, another transformation force came into play. The widespread use of electricity in factories allowed for true mass production to emerge as a viable option. Machines could work around the clock, without breaks.

The latter half of the 20th century saw the beginning of the computing era and the rise of industrial robotics. This allowed for repetitive production processes to be automatized and monitored remotely, increasing production output and, most importantly, production quality - machines could perform the same task over and over with incredible precision. Following these three preceding technological transformations, we are now on the verge of another industrial revolution, commonly known as Industry 4.0, the new buzzword in the manufacturing world.

What is Industry 4.0?

Ask anyone you know about Industry 4.0, and you will get a lot of terms thrown at you: Smart Factories, Big Data, Cloud, AI, IIoT, Cyber-Physical Systems, Smart Sensors, Blockchain, etc. But these technologies (and I am just touching the tip of the iceberg) do not make up Industry 4.0 and should only be considered enablers - a means to an end.

Industry 4.0 and Digital Factory terms

In a very broad sense, Industry 4.0 is the information-intensive transformation of manufacturing (and related industries) into a connected environment of industrial assets, processes, systems and people, leveraging the generation and usage of vast amounts of data into actionable insights. Industry 4.0 promises digital factories with improved productivity, efficiency, flexibility and a more dynamic approach to production. All these Digital Factory advantages (and many others which I am not mentioning) lead to a high ROI and increased future profitability.

However, it is not ‘something’ that will be attained overnight, and companies should not strive to implement all technologies at once. To move to intelligent manufacturing, smart factories, or connected industries, you first need to bridge things such as industrial assets, people and work processes. And to bridge all that, you need strong data gathering, integration and networking. Everything must be interconnected and interoperable. Information from every single source needs to be unified and holistic.

Factory Automation & Digital Factory

For now, let’s move away from Industry 4.0 briefly to offer an overview regarding automation in a factory. In the shop floor, most of the machines you find will be controlled by a PLC, or Programmable Logic Controller. These are industrial computers that have been ruggedized to withstand the harsh conditions often found in the shop floor and are used to control manufacturing processes, such as assembly lines, machine function or robotic devices. PLCs generally consist of a power supply, CPU, input/output module and communication module. PLCs capture data from the plant floor by monitoring inputs from the sensors and other field devices they are connected to. The CPU then executes the user-created program logic and outputs data or commands to the machines and actuators it is connected to.

Fieldbus is an industrial network that is specifically designed for communication between PLCs or industrial controllers and the field-mounted sensors and actuators. Fieldbus is designed to replace the point-to-point wiring that connects each sensor and actuator to the controller I/O.

We can divide industrial control networks into three distinct generations with varying levels of compatibility:

  • The first generation consists of traditional serial-based Fieldbus protocols. Some examples of well-known serial-based Fieldbuses are Modbus RTU, PROFIBUS, and CAN.
  • The second generation is made up of the Ethernet-based protocols. Examples of Ethernet-based protocols are MODBUS TCP, ETHERNET/IP, and PROFINET.
  • The latest generation has begun to incorporate wireless communications technologies.

By having a diverse selection of protocols available, you can choose what best suits your needs. You might choose a Fieldbus for a specific task because of its lower price and lower complexity. However, the different types of industrial communication protocols are generally not compatible with each other. This means that devices on a network must all use the same type of communication protocol.

Enter the OPC standard

In 1995, a vendor-independent industry group, the OPC Foundation presented the OPC standard to help address this challenge. The OPC standard was designed to provide a common method for communicating between field devices and software applications.

OPC Foundation

The OPC Server software talks to the PLC or field device over its native communication protocol and converts that message to standardized formats defined by the vendor independent OPC specifications, which can then be read by any OPC client.  An OPC Server can be viewed as a software application that converts different device protocols into a common language that any client application that needs data can understand.

Many factories will have different manufacturing equipment, using different protocols. This is where OPC biggest strength lies: In an industry full of proprietary systems and protocols, OPC is the agreed upon standard way for disparate systems to communicate. It turns all those different protocols into a single line of communication, makes it secure and remotely accessible.

For example, suppose that an OPC Client application wanted the information from a certain PLC. The OPC Server communicates with a PLC using the Modbus protocol. In this case, the OPC Server will ask the PLC for specific memory addresses that contain the data that the OPC Server requires. This is done using the Modbus protocol. The PLC provides all the responses to the OPC Server using Modbus as well. This way, the OPC Server can read data from, and write data to the PLC using Modbus. The OPC Server then converts the data it retrieves from the PLC (using Modbus), to OPC “format,” and sends the data to an OPC Client application. Any OPC Client application can retrieve data from the OPC Server without having to know anything about the PLC or its automation protocol.

Currently when talking about OPC, we are referring to OPC UA or Open Platform Communications United Architecture. This framework was released in 2008 and builds on the success of OPC Classic by being functionally equivalent to OPC Classic, yet capable of much more. OPC UA has a service-oriented architecture, in which the servers, known as data providers, expose their information model, and the clients, known as data consumers, consume the information exposed by the server and can be used on several different platforms (Linux, Windows, Android, etc).

During the development of the OPC UA standard, the highest degree of safety was considered from the very beginning. In contrast to OPC Classic, OPC UA was developed “firewall-friendly”, i.e. it can be controlled and steered via standard network techniques.

OPC UA does not only offer the common IT mechanisms for authentication, signing and encrypted access. Additional protocols can extend the actual transport layer at any time. When a request is received to connect to a server, the server validates the request, decrypts it and validates its certificate. Once a valid request for authentication or authorization is received and decoded, the next step is to determine if the server should accept that device’s connection or allow access to that user.

Diogital Factory - OPC better than Ethernet

This isn’t to say that OPC UA is “better” than EtherNet/IP, ProfiNet or Modbus TCP. For moving IO data around a machine, these protocols provide the right combination of transports, functionality, and simplicity that enable machine control with a networked I/O. They are very good technologies for the machine control level of the automation hierarchy. Still, for moving information from the field, up to the business software, OPC UA is the best choice. It increases productivity, enhances quality, and lowers costs by providing not only more data, but also information - and the right kind of information - to the production, maintenance, and IT systems.

Will Industry 4.0 solutions support legacy systems?

Another big challenge facing Industry 4.0 real-scale implementation is the legacy barrier. This is due to the fact that automation-devoted devices, mainly PLCs, are expected to have a lifespan of decades, so the advents of innovative technology like those brought by Industry 4.0, strike the legacy of already existing facilities. As it is evident, the investments associated with the modernization of software and hardware entities are a serious obstacle.

Most enterprises refuse a radical modernization of their entire automation system or simply cannot take the risk of quitting a running system. Instead of changing the whole system, it is necessary to extend capabilities of the hardware infrastructure that is in use to implement modern ways of information management. Due to the networked operation, in Industry 4.0, machinery and equipment must be provided with data sharing mechanisms. In other words, connectivity is a key feature for the legacy of already existing infrastructures; therefore, a first stage to be Industry 4.0-ready consists of adding network connectivity to current devices.

With the use of OPC UA Servers, whether embedded in a device or as standalone software, the number of brands and devices that can be interconnected includes most of the hardware in the field, for almost every industry. Even PLCs that communicate over serial fieldbuses can be connected to an OPC UA server over server gateway software or gateways devices. This means that companies, can take their first steps into Industry 4.0 with minimal investments in many cases.

The vision of a Digital Factory and an integrated IIoT platform

Like I said earlier, manufacturers need to easily access data from their production processes to fully take advantage of Industry 4.0. Driven by the need to identify, analyze, and optimize industrial data, many manufacturers are considering (or have already adopted) an IIoT platform to leverage the power of Machine Learning, AI, and Big Data discoveries.

An IIoT platform aggregates real-time data from hardware, software systems, sensors, and other data points into a centralized environment, which can usually be accessed by a wide group of users. It bridges the gap between systems, people, and machines by pulling that data into a centralized system, either on-premises, on edge or in the cloud.

Of course, this still requires careful planning and not all IIoT platforms are the same. It is not enough to just connect all your PLCs to an OPC UA server. If don’t know what data you want to obtain, how you want to connect and use this data and how to deal with the commissioning and decommissioning of existing or new devices, your Industry 4.0 project will end like all the others.

Digital Factory & Industry 4.0 projects gone wrong

Companies get talked into by smooth-talking salespeople into investing thousands and thousands of dollars on software that reads machine data and then presents the information on dashboards that can be checked by the entire company. For a few months, even a year or two, this works fine. But then you buy a new machine, and no one knows how to connect it to this new system. Or a part stops being produced, and the production line gets slightly changed to cater to a different need. Or you buy a new manufacturing software, and it doesn’t communicate with the system. Maintenance could probably help, but they are swamped with other things to do and don’t have the time to properly re-configure everything. The IT department is the same. Little by little, this software stops being used and probably will remain that way until someone remembers that it exists and tasks an intern with making the whole factory use it again. And just like that, Industry 4.0 was forgotten.

Testing the first prospective applications of IIoT platforms in your company should not require long preparation or a large up-front investment. Several years ago, a handful of major industrial vendors attempted to build general-purpose platforms. Hundreds of millions of dollars later, they’ve been scaled back dramatically for limited, “special” purpose scenarios, or shut down entirely. They never had a chance. After all, even competitors in the same industry can have completely different sets of requirements, constraints, and goals. Imagine trying to provide all these things across industries as well.

Don’t forget that each facility manager, equipment maker, and service operator is specifically aiming to provide unique products and services, optimize their own internal processes, and drive new business models that are both defensible and differentiated from close competitors. How can you win if you’re stuck with the same capabilities and limitations as everyone else? You decide to look for a faster horse. I say you need to stop looking for a faster horse. It’s time to build your flying car.

The middleware solution – CB Digital Factory

These are the problems we try to solve at Connecting Software. Our world is a place where systems and applications can communicate in one universal language. A world in which data is available at all times, irrespective of its origin or destination, form or purpose. In this world, interoperability is not just a buzzword, rather a unified, everyday reality. We strive to build a universe that enables developers to seamlessly integrate data from any source to provide ultimate insight to end-users.

And this is exactly what we achieved with Connect Bridge, our powerful software integration platform. By using the Connect Bridge and our 400+ connectivities to most popular and widespread industry and business applications, developers can securely connect to a wide range of business software via their APIs, without the need to learn their documentation. This architecture enables communication via the Structured Query Language (SQL) syntax – the programming language every developer knows. Connect Bridge translates the SQL syntax into the appropriate API calls, keeping your target system’s integrity secured while offering the ease of communication between your application and your target systems with our connectors.

And to extend this to the industrial world, we decided to develop a connector that allowed us to speak ‘machine language’. We learned the OPC UA architecture and then mapped it into SQL.

CB Digital Factory and OPC UA connector

Currently, the OPC UA Connector works as an OPC UA Client. This means that, if given an OPC UA Server’s address and the correct permissions, the user can access data from an OPC UA Server. After the connection is established, the data the server exposes can be interacted with using SQL. Developers working for a company can easily integrate the company’s shop floor data into the business software that they use, creating a custom-made solution catering to their specific needs.

Where can I start?

Our vision for CB Digital Factory is to turn it into a full-fledged, highly customizable IIoT platform, ready to provide seamless integration between shop floor, MES and ERP and any other business software your company uses.

CB Digital Factory allows companies to take the first steps in the digitalization of their shop floors in a very affordable way. Industry 4.0 is no longer just within reach of the big companies, with dedicated IT departments, but now also open to small and medium companies with sometimes one-man show IT departments.

To see how this works for yourself, think of which software and machines you would like to integrate and ask for your personalized free demo.

Interested in Industry 4.0? Read more:

Pedro Noronha - Author

Pedro Noronha
IIoT Product Manager at Connecting Software


I graduated with a master's degree in Mechanical Engineering and worked in the Automotive Industry as a Consultant and Project Manager, before focusing on IT and Industry 4.0.

Do you have any questions or comments about this post or CB Digital Factory? I would love to have your feedback!

Comments 2

  1. Avatar for Junmar

    Is there a free software that we can use for virtual simulation?(e.g. pick and place, where we can actually see an object moving such as the conveyors, cylinders etc.)

  2. Avatar for Ana Neto

    You could go for the trial versions of SIMATIC WinCC or Factory I/O. Factory I/O Starter Edition is paid but not too expensive: it goes for 36 euros/year.

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