Creating a safe path to digital with open standards

To keep pace with the digital age, the critical infrastructure and automation industries are looking beyond today’s control systems for new, common technologies to help balance requirements for uptime with digital technologies. Open standards can help.

By Ed Harrington May 4, 2020

 The reality of competing in today’s data-driven economy means organizations need to have a clear open-strategy in place for technology adoption and a clear vision for what future systems should look like. All types of companies are trying to digitally transform because of the clear benefit it provides. According to Accenture, companies that have implemented emerging technologies into their core processes are seeing their revenue grow two times faster than those who are not. Yet 97% of information technology (IT) decision-makers say legacy infrastructures are holding them back and, as a result, many companies are struggling to deploy new technology with speed and agility. 

Within the context of process automation – industries that cannot turn off their factories ever – organizations often can’t take advantage of advances in digital technologies due to the inability to insert these advances within a facility’s infrastructure.  

To keep pace with the digital age, the critical infrastructure and automation industries are looking beyond today’s control systems for new, common technologies that can help them balance requirements for uptime with the ability to take advantage of digital technologies – and they’re looking to open standards to help them. 

The industry case for open standards  

Process automation control systems are central to any industry required to maintain operations on a continual basis. These include, among others, oil and gas, petro- and specialty chemicals, utilities, mining and metal, pharmaceutical, food and beverage, and pulp and paper. For most of these, downtime is not an option. With one in particular, power generation and distribution, process automation technologies are fundamental as it fuels out everyday lives.  

More often than not, the same type of equipment and processes are deployed across different sectors, yet there are only a few suppliers providing the relevant services. These suppliers have a complete “stack,” running all the way from a device to providing information to a separate planning system. However, these systems are proprietary and cannot be easily replaced, presenting the issue of vendor lock-in. This is also limiting from the perspective of digital transformation, given that organizations are unable to deploy new technological innovations if they aren’t provided by their current supplier.  

As such, organizations are looking for common technologies that can help them balance requirements for uptime, security and safety with the need to take advantage of digital innovation. Digital transformation does not require a rip and replace approach. Instead, organizations should view this as an opportunity to improve the functional capabilities of their facility and move to a new software environment that extends the life of the traditional legacy systems. 

Finding common ground, best in class  

Despite the process automation industries being vastly different in their outputs, there are many commonalities in the desire for efficiency, interoperability and the ability to integrate best-in-class technologies. Recognizing the need for cross-industry collaborationa group of companies representing a variety of verticals got together three years ago to discuss the possibility of developing an open standard for process automation. Each company in attendance was driven by the need for more flexible solutions  

Shortly after, the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF) was born under the guidance of The Open Group. Since then, the Forum has worked to lay the foundations for developing a standard to ensure the security, interoperability and scalability of new control systems. A year ago, over 90 member organizations were involved with the creation of OPAF’s O-PAS Standard, Version 1.0, which is now a full standard of The Open Group.  

While industry standards for process automation are already available in the marketplace and fit-for-purpose, the O-PAS Standard focuses on interoperability, using existing industry standards and adopting and adapting them to create a “standard of standards.”  

Digital technologies look ahead  

Digital technologies are the future. This is why we’re already seeing end-user and supplier organizations work with peers to agree on technical standards that are open and based on common interfaces. This will make it easier and cheaper to replace and repair control systems and to reduce operational costs. It will be easier for digital transformation initiatives to be done at a low cost and with minimal disruption.  

However, there is still work to be done. Many companies are expected to follow in the footsteps of the first organizations, who are already looking to open standards to help them improve operational efficiency and grapple with digital complexity. A safe path to digital for every organization will unlock significant cost savings and efficiency for the broader process automation industry.   

Ed Harrington is forum director, Open Process Automation Forum, The Open GroupEdited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, 

KEYWORDS: Open process standards, interoperability 

The industry case for open standards 

Finding common groundbest in class process automation 

Process automation cost savings and efficiency are goals. 


If today’s industrial standards efforts lead to interoperability, will you help?  

Author Bio: Ed Harrington is forum director, Open Process Automation Forum, The Open Group.