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Dr. Thomas Tauchnitz about modular automation and being brave enough to implement existing system solutions

Industrie 4.0

We need to step on the gas

Automation technology faces massive challenges in a vast range of industries. Meanwhile, NOA and OPATM are being developed further – two different system concepts for making automation more flexible and more efficient. We talked with Dr. Thomas Tauchnitz, one of the leading experts in the field, about the digital future of automation.

Dr. Tauchnitz, what does digitalization mean for the process industry?

Dr. Thomas Tauchnitz: Just like the manufacturing industry, the process industry is facing market requirements that are changing at a dizzying speed – for example, shorter delivery times, smaller batch sizes, faster times to market for innovative products, and increasing global competition. Market players have to consider what technical possibilities they can use in the area of digitalization to become more efficient.

Digitalization is certainly not a cure-all, but it’s an important lever. It’s not enough to use digitalization to make technical processes more flexible – it has to include organizational and logistical processes as well.

What role should modules play in the automation of the future?

Unfortunately, the concept of a module isn’t clearly defined. A module might be a traditional package unit. Or it could be a compressor complete with instrumentation. When we talk about “mixing” or “transferring,” we’re talking about logical modules. But when we talk about process engineering modules, we mean systems in specialized chemistry or development plants.

Kids playing with Legos, for example, build structures out of standardized blocks. That’s how we need to imagine modules for automation too. They help manage the complexity of a plant – even if they’re not yet consistently supported in control and engineering systems.

Do you see any particular sector that especially stands out today as a driver for modular automation processes?

Machine construction is already relatively far ahead. The automotive industry, which builds a new production hall for every new car model every five to seven years, will follow. Digitalization makes the push to innovate easier in manufacturing than it does in the process industry, where plants are designed to last some 30 years. Innovation will go slower in the process industry, because in Germany there’s a large inventory of plants already in place. However, the User Association of Automation Technology in Process Industries (NAMUR) and the Central Association of Electrical Engineering and Electronics Industry (ZVEI) have developed the Module Type Package (MTP) that enables automated process engineering modules to be combined. It’s a kind of plug & play approach for modules, and the first products are already available on the market.

My prediction is that monolithic, closed automation systems that run for ten years without a change are going to become a thing of the past.
Dr. Thomas Tauchnitz, NAMUR

Isn’t it just logical that future systems will have to be designed to be open in general?

I’m a big fan of openness, but it has to meet the basic conditions set by the existing systems. We already know that from the office sector. I can connect a new printer to an existing system. Most of the time that works out just fine. But often enough, it doesn’t. If openness means my system becomes less reliable, then it’s not much use.

But right now, new options are developing very fast for taking advantage of data, such as predictive maintenance, process monitoring and process optimization. If automation systems don’t have the necessary ability to import and export data, then parallel channels will become established to more or less circumvent the control system. And every parallel channel raises the question of whether you really need that automation system as it is in the first place. My prediction is that monolithic, closed automation systems that run for ten years without a change are going to become a thing of the past. If systems like those aren’t open, they’ll gradually die out.

There are two different architectural approaches at the moment. What do they look like?

That’s NOA, Namur Open Architecture, and OPATM, Open Process Automation. NOA ultimately aims to provide the necessary openness in existing automation systems. For export, it offers ways to access the automation system, the remote I/O system and the field devices directly. It has a new “verification of request” procedure for adjusting processes. NOA is an option for classic process automation solutions that can be implemented quickly.

OPATM, on the other hand, which is promoted by the Open Process AutomationTM Forum, aims for a completely open architecture of the automation system itself. That’s intended to enable many very small automation components to be combined flexibly and independently of the manufacturer so that they will work together reliably. The Module Type Package (MTP) developed here in Germany for modular production is of enormous interest to the OPATM Forum. One could say that MTP is the first step in the direction of OPATM.

Which system is going to become fully established?

Undoubtedly, Namur Open Architecture. Not just as a transitional solution for opening up existing automation systems, but permanently. As I see it, it makes very good sense to keep highly available, long-term, real-time systems securely separated from apps, clouds, and trial-and-error playgrounds.

And MTP as well. But it’s not clear yet whether Open Process Automation will be widely accepted. Of course, it would be a sheer dream for users to be able to put automation itself together modularly. But the requirements for openness, equal status of components, and differences of makers are still in conflict with criteria like high availability and long-term stability. I’ll be curious to see whether that can be resolved.

We’ve been talking about Industrie 4.0 for five years. However, not enough has happened. I'm very impatient in that regard.
Dr. Thomas Tauchnitz, NAMUR

Is there a way to combine OPATM and NOA?

If it ever turns out that OPATM works, nobody will want to rely on classic automation anymore. In that case NOA would also not be needed anymore, as the systems would already be open. But first of all, NOA is going to get established far earlier than OPATM. And open solutions too need data export to be free from repercussions to protect the functionality of automation and to enable controlled import in the sense of a “validation of request.” So any system provider who implements NOA elements into its system will also be able to use those elements later for open automation systems.

What would you like to have from manufacturers and producers?

I have three wishes. First: NOA should be implemented as soon as possible. I’d like to see the NOA demonstrators from the NAMUR 2017 annual meeting in the 2018 product catalog, and the 2018 demonstrators in the 2019 product catalog.

Second: We showed long ago that our NOA works. So let’s step on the gas! The longer it takes to put this into action, the more parallel solutions will come along that will only make the automation world more complicated.

And third: The digital twin electronically reflects what equipment and modules do. At the moment, we don’t get data in modular form out of the engineering tools. So makers of these tools have to get more modular.

Technological developments are moving at breakneck speed. What do you think industry should do so it doesn’t miss the boat for Industrie 4.0?

Automation providers and cloud developers have done their homework. But I’m not seeing nearly enough applications being implemented in the process industry. So we need to get faster and braver – and also be willing to put up some money. We’ve been talking about Industrie 4.0 for five years. However, not enough has happened. I'm very impatient in that regard.

You only need to take a look at the initiatives in other countries. Task forces there are meeting every week, not once a month. There aren’t just two or three working groups there, there are a hundred. And they’re also putting up investment funding for pilot solutions. It saddens me when good ideas ultimately fail because they’re short by a couple of employees and a couple hundred thousand euros. If we want to win a race we need runners and good shoes. Otherwise, somebody else is going to wind up on the winners podium.

Dr. Thomas Tauchnitz during a visit at the Siemens stand at this year’s Hannover Messe.
Ingo Petz
Picture credits: Siemens AG / Martin Leissl