Catching Up on The Open Group Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF): A Conversation with Ed Harrington

By The Open Group

Two years ago, a group of companies from seemingly disparate industries met in San Francisco to discuss the possibility of creating an open standard for process automation. With 30 different companies in attendance at that first meeting, the group quickly recognized the commonalities among them and the need for more flexible manufacturing solutions. Soon after, they launched the Open Process Automation™ Forum  (OPAF) under the auspices of The Open Group® to begin work toward developing a standard that would address the common pain points manufacturers in process automation face today.

In January of 2018, the Forum released its first Business Guide, and one year later in January 2019, the Open Process Automation Standard – O-PAS™ Standard – was published. We recently caught up with Forum Director Ed Harrington to discuss what the Forum has been working on and what we can expect to see from the group throughout the rest of 2019. The following is a transcript of that conversation.

For those that are unfamiliar, what is process automation and how does it differ from other types of automation for manufacturing?

We’re dealing primarily with what is known in the industry as continuous process manufacturing, or batch processing, as opposed to what is known as discrete manufacturing. An example of continuous process would be an oil refinery where you start with crude oil and, through chemical transformation, turn it into things like diesel, gasoline and other chemicals. Discrete manufacturing typically produces individual items like automobiles or appliances.

One key element that distinguishes process automation is that it is “always-on.” It’s a non-stop effort. Once the plant stops, the organization stops making money. It’s vitally crucial that the plant keeps operating, hopefully at optimal efficiency. The manufacturer is very much opposed to anything that will cause the plant to shut down because that will result in a direct loss of revenue to the organization.

The same applies to other industries beside oil and gas. It applies in pharmaceutical companies as they go through the whole process of generating the products, packaging them and getting them out the door. That has its own challenges in that a lot is based on how quickly you can get to market. Food and beverage is another example. They do a lot of continuous processing where soda, beer, cereals and all kinds of other food stuff is created from raw materials on a continuous processing basis.

Other industries utilizing process automation technologies would include Pulp and Paper (conversion of wood to paper products); Power Generation and Distribution (fossil fuel, thermal, or water power conversion to energy); and Mining and Minerals is another. They all have to keep things going on a continuous basis, converting one form of resource to an intermediate or end product.

Since the processes are continuous they need to be monitored and controlled. The process automation technology “stack” goes from the lowest level of information needed—usually generated by some sort of sensor (thermostat, flow meter, vibration detector, etc.) to and through a control mechanism that can act based on the results passed up by those sensors. If things are not “normal” then alarms can be set off and corrective action taken – like adjusting the flow to get things back to “normal.”

Also, another area that is very critical, especially within portions of the industry, is safety because these kinds of facilities—power generation, petrochemical plants, refineries—are all becoming targets of cybersecurity attacks. So you have to have built-in very high security measures to ensure the continuous safety of the facilities.

OPAF released its first Business Guide at the beginning of 2018. Since then, what has the Forum been working on?

In May, we published a high-level Requirements Whitepaper that took a look at the end-user “pain-points” that needed to be addressed by the Forum.

Last June, we published the first Snapshot of our Technical Standard. What we’ve been working on for the bulk of the year is the O-PAS™ Standard Version 1.0, A Preliminary Standard of The Open Group. The Standard has now been published. Its primary focus is on interoperability and leverages our concept of a “Standard-of-Standards” utilizing ISA 62443 for Security, OPC UA for Communications and DMTF Redfish for Systems Management. It is available in The Open Group Library here.

More than most Forums of The Open Group, OPAF crosses many vertical industries. Why are so many industries interested in creating an open standard for process automation that they can all use?

Basically the same type of equipment and processes are used in these multiple industries, and the number of suppliers to those industries is highly limited. Each has a complete “stack” that goes all the way from a device like a thermostat (they don’t manufacture the devices but consume the signals coming from them) all the way up to supplying information to a separate MRP (material requirements planning) system.

The problem is that these systems are proprietary and not easily replaceable—and  certainly not on a heterogeneous basis. So, for instance, if you like a basic control system from one supplier, but you really like the HMI (Human Machine Interface) from another, you can’t put the two together. This also limits the insertion of new innovations that are not supplied by your chosen supplier.

What we’re trying to do is find the logical points in that supplier stack to break this chain and develop a set of standard interfaces. We’re not trying to replicate any of the IP of those suppliers, but what we want to do is develop appropriate interfaces so that the end users can move closer to a “plug-and-play” environment rather than be tied-in to a single vendor.

What industries are currently represented in the Forum? Do you expect others to also follow suit in 2019? Are you actively recruiting potential members from other industries?

Absolutely, and we hope the issuance of the O-PAS Standard Version 1.0 will increase membership substantially! Currently we have representation from oil and gas, petro-chemical, specialty chemicals, pharmaceutical, pulp and paper, mining and metals. The two that we’re missing right now are power generation and distribution and food and beverage. We’re actively working in those areas to try to get participation as well.

For manufacturers who are struggling with Digital Transformation, what are the benefits they can gain from considering becoming a part of OPAF?

What we’re doing is defining the interface points in the instrument to MRP “stack” that make sense and developing a standards-based approach to enabling interoperable access to those interface points. Using the HMI example I mentioned earlier, we are identifying the point of integration between the basic control system and the HMI and abstracting it so it can be implemented in a standards-based way.

Key here, however, are two points:

  1. We are not reinventing the wheel and developing new standards where there are existing, fit-for-purpose standards today. We will adopt and adapt those standards to meet the necessary requirements. We are developing a “standard of standards.”
  2. We are not developing products that compete with existing control system suppliers. We are, hopefully, providing the opportunity for those suppliers to concentrate on what they do best and open up new and expanding markets in which they can participate. We are not touching their IP.

The other thing we’re focused on is security. We are seeing the acceleration of the merger of IT (Information Technology) and OT (Operations Technology). This opens up what have been very closed networks in the OT space to IT.

In the past, the way many of these plants and organizations have handled OT security is by air-gapping the facility, so there is no interaction outside of the OT space. However, with the advent of new communications technologies (wireless, TSN, etc.) and the capabilities of the cloud for things like predictive maintenance and analytics we see these closed networks opening up.  As a result, we are seeing significant increase in cybersecurity risks. To counter this, we are trying to ensure that we look at security as an integral part of O-PAS—not something that is bolted on as an afterthought!

There’s obviously a lot of benefit for these types of systems to being closed. How much are continuous process manufacturers really looking at cloud environments?

I wouldn’t want to answer for them—it’s all over the map. Some of the industries are more advanced in their digital development and cybersecurity risk management and are more comfortable looking at cloud-based solutions and investments. Others are just beginning to test the benefits of the cloud.

As we look ahead to 2019, what can we expect from OPAF this year?

First, the market is now seeing the release of the O-PAS Standard, Version 1.0. This will be followed by what we are calling an Interoperability Workshop, where we intend to gather as many of our supplier members together to ensure that their equipment can interoperate with other suppliers’ equipment. This will help to refine Version 1.0 and prove its efficacy.

We’re already working on and putting together what’s going to be in Version 2.0 of the standard. Version 1.0 focuses on interoperability; Version 2.0 will focus on configuration portability. Beyond that we are looking at other areas that will help relieve identified end-user pain points. We’re being very aggressive and looking to do major releases on an annual basis.

Are you also planning to put together use cases and guidance for end users?

With the release of O-PAS Version 1.0, we have a number of aligned projects underway. First is a procurement guide. This should help end user organizations and their systems integrators identify how to go about specifying their needs. We feel this is needed because a lot of this stuff is going to be a “brave new world” for industry participants.

The other thing we’re working on is a conformance certification program. This will ensure that when an end user or systems integrator purchases an O-PAS conformant product, it meets the specifications of the standard.

 Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the work the OPAF is doing?

This has been a very fast two years since we started this effort. I have had the privilege of working with some of the legends in process automation. The people working on this standardization project have truly formed into a cohesive team. The OPAF leadership has kept the team focused on the end game.

I really want to thank all of the folks who have contributed so much to get us where we are and to keep us going—they know who they are.   @theopengroup   @ogOPAF

Ed Harrington is the Forum Director of the Open Process Automation™ Forum, a Forum of the Open Group. Before joining The Open Group, he headed up his own consultancy, EPH Associates. Prior positions include Principle Consultant with Architecting the Enterprise where he provided TOGAF® and other Enterprise Architecture (EA) discipline training and consultancy; EVP and COO for Model Driven Solutions, an EA, SOA and Model Driven Architecture Consulting and Software Development company; various positions for two UK-based companies, Nexor and ICL and 18 years at General Electric in various marketing and financial management positions. Ed has been an active member of The Open Group since 2000 and is past chair of various Forums of The Open Group (including past Vice Chair of the Architecture Forum). Ed is TOGAF 9 certified.