The Need for Open Process Automation: A Conversation with Darren Blue

By The Open Group

Process automation systems have long been defined by proprietary technical systems. As digitalization continues to create new norms for all industries, manufacturers are beginning to look beyond today’s systems for common technologies that can help them balance requirements for up-time with the ability to take advantage of digital data—and they’re looking to open standards to help them.

We spoke with Darren Blue, Director of Software Defined Industrial Systems for Intel, about Intel’s involvement in The Open Group Open Process Automation™ Forum and The Open Process Automation Business Guide – Value Proposition and Business Case for the Open Process Automation Standard, which was released on January 22, 2018. Blue will be sharing the stage on January 30th at The Open Group San Diego event with Eugene Tung of Merck to discuss the guide and how they expect it to benefit the process automation ecosystem.

How do you define Process Automation in terms of what the Open Process Automation Forum is doing and how it is approaching this need in the industry?

The way we’ve defined Process Automation is we are looking at all types of manufacturing for control and automation but the first areas we’re investigating first are process manufacturing or continuous flow, meaning the types of industries that do a transformation of some kind of product where the relevant items are ingredients rather than discrete parts. They very rarely ever turn their factories off, if you will, there’s not a break. Think of industries like oil and gas, pulp and paper, or pharmaceuticals that have a chemical transformation as an end user. These factory owners are constantly bringing in material and heating it and changing it and applying different flows to it as opposed to discrete manufacturing, which is more stamping and assembling types of process—automotive is probably the biggest one in that space.

From an Intel perspective, we actually have a little bit of both. Our silicon fabs have a lot of process manufacturing where we’re transforming silicon wafer using chemicals and processing them with lithography and etch process to create microprocessors. From there the completed wafer is sent to the Intel assembly factories to cut the processors into individual components to assemble and test the final product, which is a discrete manufacturing type of process—so we have a mix of both at Intel.

Our goal in the Open Process Automation Forum is to combine the best of both IT and OT technologies to transform the capabilities of automation and control allowing for improved efficiency and factory outcomes.

Why is Intel in particular interested in the Open Process Automation Forum?

I’m in the Industrial Solutions Division, which is a vertical business unit within our Internet of Things group. We’re engaged, we consult with our manufacturing organization with Intel as well, because today if you look at the current offerings of products that are used in process and control technologies, it’s very specific and often proprietary, such that it doesn’t use a lot of general purpose compute. We’re interested, from an Intel perspective, to see how general purpose computing can make process automation achieve some of the things that are being proposed in OPAF (Open Process Automation Forum) and the Industrial Internet of Things. With the key attributes of interoperability, scalability, and portability, we see opportunity to utilize general purpose computing hardware and software to move forward with these types of goals.

When you’ve got manufacturing processes that are specific to various industries, how do you go about applying general purpose computing in a way that will be useful to them?

It really is a transformation from specifically designed solutions to scalable platforms and systems. We’ve even had some history in this space at Intel where there are a lot of parallels between what is happening in this industry and what happened in the telecom industry with network function virtualization. It’s a similar transformation from specific and proprietary solutions to scalable computing platforms. Intel was able to participate in that industry where multiple functions were combined onto a standard server. That consolidation achieved a couple of things—it reduced the CapEx required up front and gave the telecom providers opportunity to scale at a time when data was exploding due to smart phones being connected to the network. The cost savings was achieved by tapping into the mass production of the IT Industry and the availability and standardization of the software.

Is the process of digital transformation even more difficult for companies in these industries that have more specific and proprietary computing needs?

I don’t know that I would say it’s more difficult—it’s just as much of a technology change as it is a cultural change. Just like all of us, we’ve been doing things a certain way for a while and it’s been successful. Making a change of this magnitude is something that takes some understanding and time.

I think everyone has their own set of challenges. An area that is a challenge for manufacturing is that there are so many different processes, segments, and requirements. There will be commonalities and we’ve worked to document what’s common through the Forum – attributes of interoperability, reuse configuration, standard interfacing and the ability to integrate best-in-class technologies. There will be a lot of differences, as well as the variations across industries.

For example, the manufacturing information that a factory leader in the oil and gas industry wants versus what someone in the food industry making soft drinks needs will be different in both the type of data as well as the timing of the data feed. How the control system in the pharmaceutical industry will be able to turn data to information and ultimately into an action will vary from the other industries as well. There will be a lot of commonalities, but finding those and utilizing those concepts and ideas across many different products and processes is work still to be done. Companies and operators have spent decades learning and fine tuning all of the ins and outs of their particular technologies and manufacturing processes. The knowledge & requirements from that learning will need to be understood and incorporated into the newer technologies. It will be important throughout the transformation that existing and newer technologies can work together to deliver a strong result. We have to comprehend where the common ground lies.

How did you get involved in the development of the Business Guide for the Open Process Automation Forum?

We’re following The Open Group process in this type of transformation. My background is business-oriented, so when it came to looking at how do we document the business case for this transformation, we’re looking for companies and participants that span those different challenges. So Gene (Eugene Tung) and I partnered up and volunteered. In this space Intel has an interesting role being both a supplier and an end-user providing a bridge between manufacturing and technology. This position made it a unique opportunity for my involvement, and I have enjoyed being part of the development of the business guide.

What does the Business Guide entail?

The Business Guide encompasses several different topics. It starts with an executive summary and moves towards some of the common themes that were boiled down across the various members of the OPAF highlighting why those are important. The document includes why the Forum was created along with the Forum goals and several use cases. This is meant to be a guiding document for the Forum’s overall direction to be used by the members of the Forum and communicate the overarching purpose, as well as a call for new participants to join.

How would you describe the overall purpose of the Forum?

In my personal opinion, as we look toward taking the next step in technology and capability, there has to be a benefit to the ecosystem. We are working to define what those benefits might be by engaging both buyers and suppliers.

What is the next logical step as you move forward? All companies are trying continually increase productivity and customer satisfaction. In order to do that, control system capabilities need to start moving toward a digital and data transformation.

How do you start getting operational benefits? Manufacturers are concerned about throughput, uptime, and costs. Any new system has to match or beat existing capabilities in these key criteria while providing additional benefits that may not have previously existed.

Then, how do you start getting your data out and start to understand more and more what’s happening in your processes? For data, connecting previously unconnected machines starts the process of extracting data to solve big problems. Manufacturers can then utilize that data to improve their processes.

Is the Open Process Automation Forum looking to address a specific business problem or set of problems?

If you look at it from the standpoint of key attributes, what we’ve heard is interoperability, reusable configuration, and standard interfaces to get the best-in-class technologies. From a business perspective, it’s sort of the traditional zero or minimal downtime, flexibility in the process, improvement of safety, reduction of costs, and speed to market. Priorities will vary by industry, too. For example, I think Gene would tell you that one of his challenges in pharmaceutical is the lack of interoperability. This issue causes a slow down in getting products to market whereas the ability to easily connect tools from various vendors allows for faster integration and quicker time to market.

Why do you think that so many diverse companies and industries are interested in being a part of this Forum and in standards-building around process automation?

They all recognized the challenge of the future and are seeing what’s happened in other industries—the two previous market transformations that get discussed in the Forum are the telecom transformation and FACE™ (Future Airborne Capability Environment), a consortium of The Open Group. The end users see benefit in the Forum and the suppliers involved are looking to be prepared towards the future.

Really what we’re driving toward is to continue on the path to further automation in the factory by providing greater opportunity to the customer, better cost to the manufacturers and, ultimately, flexibility to the marketplace.

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

Darren is the Director of Software Defined Industrial Systems at the Intel Corporation. His position resides within the Industrial and Energy Solutions division under the Internet of Things Group. Over Darren’s career he has held numerous positions that have been both technical and business oriented. Most recently Darren has been a leader for new technology business startups within Intel including server, Intel crosspoint memory, storage, and silicon photonics. Prior to joining Intel, Darren was a manufacturing project engineer for Thomson Multimedia.