M2M in manufacturing eases legacy network connections

Machine-to-machine technologies are moving into new markets and making machine processes and network connections more efficient.
By Tony Paine July 27, 2011

Machine-to-machine technology (M2M) in manufacturing allows sensors and controllers to exchange and gather information during collaborative machining processes and motion control, in new or connecting to existing or legacy network installations, such as serial networks. 

In a manufacturing environment, industrial M2M is an integral component of a much larger and more complex manufacturing infrastructure. Industrial M2M encompasses intelligent bi-directional plant floor communications, programmable logic controllers (PLCs), supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems, manufacturing resource planning systems, or enterprise resource planning systems. M2M is typically the initial component at the core of any manufacturing facility, and the infrastructure builds out from there.

Prior to M2M in manufacturing, industrial automation has used direct wire connections between sensors, actuators, and controlling PCs. Today, examples of M2M in manufacturing are analog sensors to measure real-world conditions and process control systems that perform analysis and control of manufacturing processes. Another instance is when control commands are converted to analog signals to control actuators.

Many machines are built as modular components with standard logic and control hardware. The manufacturer has a lot more choice in machine components, such as cappers, conveyors, loaders, or labelers, that can be manufactured and tested separately, then plugged into the completed machine at the customer site. M2M comes into play once the components are installed and recognize each other after the bus connection is made. Then, communication between controllers typically starts immediately and automatically without additional programming or configuration.

Next generation

A new generation of intelligent, component-based automation machines and devices is beginning to emerge. Industrial M2M will enable distributed intelligence and local control. To help improve a machine’s response times, logic functions are pushed down to the device level to achieve better local control. Local control can be used for safety functions such as light curtains and safety doors, eliminating the need for a safety bus. Controllers communicate laterally to other local controllers in sequential manufacturing operations, or they send and receive status and command signals from a central controller.

Thanks to advances in information technology, manufacturers can deploy low-power, low-cost wireless communications. Wireless communications have become a desirable alternative to direct wired connections. Low-powered wireless systems enable connections to machines and devices that were not easily monitored with previous technologies. Most production facilities use some form of M2M for industrial automation in manufacturing facilities.

As it stands today, industrial M2M plays a key role in the automation of manufacturing processes that are usually under the control of PLCs, in discrete and continuous manufacturing processes. (Continuous manufacturing also is referred to as process control.) In M2M manufacturing, there’s a focus on connectivity within all manufacturing operations and among all systems in a manufacturing facility.

Standards and specifications

OPC and embedded device communications have evolved tremendously, specifically in the areas of communication drivers for automation controllers, I/O connections, and field devices. Additionally, operating systems that support M2M manufacturing have expanded to include Microsoft Windows Desktop, Server and Embedded (Windows CE and Windows NT/XP Embedded). 

The OPC Foundation is crucial to the M2M initiative in manufacturing by adapting and applying standards and technology specifications of the general computing market for manufacturing industry-specific needs. OPC supports open connectivity in industrial automation and the enterprise systems for industry. Open standards and specifications ensure interoperability for M2M communications in manufacturing.

Software and networking suppliers work closely with the OPC Foundation as the group continues to create new standards such as OPC Unified Architecture (UA). OPC UA is independent of the platform and operating system. It supports Microsoft Windows, Linux, and a variety of embedded operating systems that M2M technology vendors can leverage. The OPC Foundation is developing and managing a standard set of operating system independent communication interfaces (Stacks). OPC UA will likely cross into new markets, such as medical devices, smart grid, and the manufacturing sector.

The M2M trend in manufacturing automation is to use data more effectively to improve operations and efficiency. OPC drivers and interoperability technologies continue to become more intelligent in acquiring data from equipment and using the data to auto-generate content within the driver. Doing so improves data use in client applications and how applications use data from server applications. For instance, assets can come from standardized tags, device models, types of equipment, and any sets of data collected that are triggered from the source.

The OPC Foundation expects the OPC UA format to add sophistication to how information is represented, transferred, and used. 

OPC and manufacturing

Within the last 10 years, OPC has become a widely accepted M2M communication standard in manufacturing, enabling data exchange among multivendor devices and control applications without proprietary restrictions or limitations, and it can make continuous real-time communication possible.

OPC is typically used in server/client pairs and otherwise distributed in client/server architecture. An OPC server, a software application that acts as an application programming interface or protocol converter, can connect to such devices as a remote terminal unit, PLCs, supervisory control system, and distributed control systems.

OPC software integrates with any data source, such as a database or graphical user interface, and translates data into a standard-based OPC format. Once translated into an OPC form of communications, it can bi-directionally send M2M device data to a historian, spreadsheet, trending application, human machine interface, or any hardware or software from vendors of OPC-compliant applications. The OPC client can display data or send commands, but it uses the OPC server to retrieve M2M data. Overall plant floor communications networks have rapidly evolved and now embrace the use of open connecting equipment that meets standard protocols like OPC.

Most software vendors include OPC client capabilities because it can make software compatible with thousands of hardware devices embedded in manufacturing equipment, machines, and controllers. This allows the manufacturer to choose whichever OPC client software it needs, knowing that the software will communicate with OPC-enabled hardware and vice versa.

OPC has had a positive effect on the M2M market in manufacturing. There has been an increase in collaboration among M2M technology vendors; OPC is helping the industrial M2M market leverage an open communications platform, which has given end users more choices and freedom to develop more sophisticated and robust automation applications, enabling data flow among various networks and devices.

New technologies such as wireless communication and embedded systems are extending M2M’s reach. Budget constraints and leaner manufacturing operations have reduced the number of workers in discrete manufacturing and process industries. Because manufacturers have to do more with less, greater demands are placed on control architectures to adopt a more connected manufacturing environment and decentralize ongoing silos of automation and intelligence. M2M relies on this decentralization to allow machinery to make decisions locally while intelligently communicating crucial data wherever it’s needed.

M2M technologies incorporate legacy network data

Kepware Technologies has developed more than150 communication protocols to support the rapid advancements in machine-to-machine communications (M2M) and M2M initiatives in the manufacturing sector. Kepware:

  • Is among companies working closely with the OPC Foundation, as the group continues to create new standards, such as OPC Unified Architecture (UA).
  • Drivers are typically “auto configuring,” which means they can automatically configure a lot of the data on their own and automatically generate the name space from information retrieved from either a program file or interrogated from the device itself.
  • Automatic tag database generation feature of KepServerEx software allows the end user to configure all necessary tags for the device automatically at start-up or with the press of a button.
  • Sees this as an exciting time in the M2M industry. Interoperability, open solutions, and choices are paving the way for automation professionals globally to maximize their M2M investments.
  • Engineers are supporting this M2M trend in manufacturing automation by developing and maintaining communication products according to the OPC Foundation’s OPC Data Access specifications.
  • KepServerEx v5 represents more than 10 human years of development and is one of the most advanced communication technology and OPC servers on the M2M market for manufacturing.
  • Has and will continue to make significant investment in OPC and driver communications development to support M2M in manufacturing.
  • Will continue to create interoperability standards for the industry, drawing from its 150,000 plus applications per year, which is exponentially growing.

Tony Paine is president and co-owner of Kepware Technologies. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, CFE Media.





-Posted by Chris Vavra, Control Engineering, www.controleng.com