The Benefits of Open Standards for Process Automation: A Conversation with Dr. Eugene Tung

By The Open Group

The Open Group Open Process Automation™ Forum has attracted companies across a wide spectrum of industries – from technology to oil and gas, chemical manufacturers to food and beverage, minerals and mining to pulp and paper. With many of these industries facing the same technology issues when it comes to digitalization, they have seen a need to come together to explore how open standards can facilitate and address the technical challenges they have in common.

We recently spoke with Dr. Eugene Tung, Director of IT for Merck, about why pharmaceutical companies such as his are interested in open process automation standards and how even open process manufacturing vendors can benefit from them. Tung, along with Darren Blue of Intel, has been instrumental in the development of The Open Process Automation Business Guide – Value Proposition and Business Case for the Open Process Automation Standard, which was released on January 22, 2018. He shared with us more insight on the Forum and Business Guide in advance of The Open Group San Diego event, where both he and Blue will be co-presenters in the plenary on January 30th.

Why is Merck interested in being a part of the Open Process Automation Forum?

We in the Merck IT department, up through our CIO and my Vice President, fundamentally believe that open, published standards are a major step forward in pushing productivity gains in IT and industrial automation systems. People like me are encouraged to be a part of standards development in areas where we see direct benefits and productivity gains for Merck as a whole.

How does process automation figure into the pharmaceutical development process?

I’ve worked in manufacturing automation, and this is an area where we see segmentation and closed proprietary systems from our vendors. It’s very difficult to insert new technology, to insert best-in-class methods, and re-use technologies because of the closed nature of these systems. We experience vendor lock-in, and we’re forced to use tools and applications offered by our vendors that may not be best-in-class and are not always suitable to our needs. Furthermore, the way the pharmaceutical industry is evolving, manufacturing plants are now increasingly composed of skid-based process equipment but there are different manufacturers offering different process automation hardware and a lot of it is not interoperable. It’s painstaking and it involves an extended amount of time to integrate disparate equipment from different control vendor platforms.

We would like to simplify this for a number of reasons. One, we don’t want to spend all the time and the money in making things interoperable via custom solutions. And two, it slows down how fast we can get a product to market. That gets to the heart of why Merck is interested in pursuing this open process automation.

If the vendors that manufacturers are buying from have these proprietary systems, how do those vendors feel about creating open process standards? Are they looking to do that as well or will they be resistant to that?

We see elements of both. However, from the Forum viewpoint, we think that the existing vendors may be the main beneficiaries of the open standards in that they can also leverage best-of-breed solutions. And they’re incentivized to innovate given that it’s a more even playing field with open standards that allow the rapid insertion of new capabilities.

The vendors understand how the standards will impact their equipment, and they’re probably going to be some of the first ones to take advantage of it. We see potentially new business models forming and new revenue streams, as well as more markets opening up to the existing vendors. So although the introduction of standards tends to disrupt the existing marketplace, it will produce new winners and new business models and markets for those that are willing to take part and embrace the open standards.

The Open Process Automation Forum is looking to standards such as from The Open Group FACE™ (Future Airborne Capability Environment) Consortium as an example for standards development—what can the Forum learn from these existing standards and what are you able to take from them?

It’s important to see how other Forums that existed before us have evolved, and to learn what worked well for them, what helped them increase adoption, what did not work well, so that we’re not creating this Open Process Automation Forum without learning all the appropriate lessons from those who came before us. And, importantly, what we’ve learned from these standards is that, once these standards have taken root in the industry, innovation has flourished and costs have gone down. To my point earlier, new markets have opened up and new companies have entered the marketplace. And even existing companies, if they’ve used the standards to their advantage, have grown and prospered. So it’s important for a number of reasons to look at the Forums that have come before us because then we can frame this Forum so it maximizes the benefits of as many members and players in the ecosystem as possible.

What are some of the key benefits that the Forum are hoping manufacturers will be able to take from the work you’re doing?

Once we see overall total cost of ownership of these process automations systems being reduced in the long run, we’ll be able to take advantage of the built-in, intrinsic cybersecurity features that are being designed into these open process automation systems. The rapid insertion of new technologies, new capabilities, and innovations will be inserted into the formerly closed systems in a much faster and cheaper way. Ultimately, that translates in manufacturing to increased equipment reliability, faster time to market, increased quality of production, and other benefits.

How much can standardization address the needs of process automation for manufacturers across industries? Will standards be able to get them to a certain percentage of commonality (50 percent, 80 percent) and then the proprietary systems sit on top of that? Where do you see that going?

It’s important to also remember that the intellectual property (IP) of those vendors is still preserved. There are points where we’re breaking up existing hardware and software systems into modules. With the modules, there will still be the intellectual property of the vendors—but the interfaces in between are what’s standard.

In the future, there still will be the IP of the vendors in the hardware and software and in the application layer. But the interfaces between them will be standard, so there’s more ability to mix and match with a high degree of confidence. With mixing and matching pieces of equipment using open standards, the whole system will still work because of the broad adoption of the open standard.

Why is reusability such an important part of creating an open process for manufacturers?

For us manufacturing end users, that is one of the prime reasons we joined the Open Process Automation Forum. The ability to mix and match, and, I think the quality attribute term we actually use is portability, so that the application or configuration code that we use can be rapidly inserted into newer systems or migrated to other systems in a highly portable fashion. We’ve invested a lot of time and money so that end user manufacturer intellectual property can be re-deployed. Again, it reduces our costs in spreading the use of our intellectual property among our process automation systems.

Open source has been something that a lot of companies are using more. Can you talk about the distinction between open source and open standards, and how manufacturers in particular may not be able to use one over the other?

We’re interested as an end user and manufacturer in open standards so that we’re able to port code or applications or configurations that are intellectual property across different platforms. That’s really different from open source, which is functional code that’s been published and the end user can use that published code for their own purposes.

Open standards to us is really more about the process automation system and the ability to insert standards so that there’s no longer close systems where we’re not able to insert our intellectual property in an easy fashion. Open source has a very different connotation and, believe it or not, there are instances in our IT department where we will take advantage of open source. But typically it does not find it’s way into process automation and directly in product manufacturing.

Why is that? Is that because it’s too risky to leave automated systems to open code?

Yes, I would say ‘tried and true’ is best, especially when you’re making products and people are involved in the making of the product and you want to protect them and keep that safe. Tried and true code, typically from reputable vendors that we have long-standing relationships with, we will still rely on that. That’s why the existing vendors should not feel threatened by open standards because there’s still the long history of manufacturers working with the vendors and trust in the code they produce, and we’ll continue to use their proprietary IP where its tried and true and we know exactly how it’s going to work. Ultimately, we want to protect our products and the people who make the products.

How does the Business Guide address the various issues being faced by the disparate industries involved in the Forum?

When we wrote the Business Guide, we were trying to capture the use across all the different manufacturing industries. We solicited contributions from bio-pharmaceuticals, from specialty chemical manufacturers, pulp and paper, mining and metals, oil and gas—so broad representation across industries. We highlighted business use cases in the Business Guide drawn from those industries to better attract end users to the Open Process Automation Forum. This business use section highlights business use cases that should resonate well within the industry and across the industry. That’s one of the ways we feel the Business Guide really represents the needs of the end users, by having these business use cases in quite detail. It should really resonate with other end users that are considering joining the Forum.

What’s it been like working with such a diverse set of industry players as part of this Forum?

It’s been a remarkably quick assimilation into the Open Process Automation Forum—likely because process automation has commonality across all these different industries. The equipment we use, the terminology we use, the trade journals we read, the conferences we attend—it’s not like I haven’t met a lot of these people before or people who work for those same companies. I’ve been going to the same conferences for 15-20 years and meeting people from these other industries. Really, our goal is well understood across industries, what we’re trying to do in open process automation. We all encounter many of the same challenges.

To download the The Open Process Automation Business Guide – Value Proposition and Business Case for the Open Process Automation Standard, please visit here. @theopengroup #ogSAN

Dr. Tung is the Director of IT at Merck & Co. for the vaccine manufacturing network in North America, supporting various platforms including plant historian, MES, Data Analytics, Process Analytical Technology and DCS. The plants that he and his team supportproduce over 150 million doses of vaccines, approaching a revenue of $6 billion on an annual basis. Prior to his current role at Merck, he was an automation startup lead for numerous vaccine production facilities. Before joining Merck, he was a control systems engineer at Air Products and Chemicals. Dr. Tung has published numerous articles in ASME Technical journals.  Gene has B.S. and M.S. degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, all in Mechanical Engineering.