OPC UA: The United Nations of Automation

The OPC Foundation is committed to creating a universal, global information exchange standard for automation. All companies worldwide are invited to engage in secure and transparent M2M communication.


Globalization has contributed to the fact that modern economic contacts and alliances, as well as global goods and information streams are in communication and movement around the clock.

Despite the difficulties of building a strong, international network, the advantages of globalization for economic growth in numerous countries worldwide outweigh any challenges. Especially when the spoken language is already perceived as an obstacle because two partners come from different language backgrounds, M2M communication is all the more effective.

The OPC Foundation has addressed this challenge of a universal, global language by developing a new information exchange standard for all. And they have found great success. The number of Foundation members is growing rapidly.

Today, more than 700 companies worldwide are already involved in the global association. According to Stefan Hoppe, President and Executive Director of the OPC Foundation, one of the Foundation's greatest strengths is its independence. Stefan Hoppe believes that this ensures neutrality, which is essential for a globally usable standard.

Together with Olaf Wilmsmeier, Business Development Manager RFID, Harting IT Software Development, who was instrumental in developing the first OPC Unified Architecture for AutoID Companion Specification with AIM Germany (AIM-D) that was presented at the Hannover Trade Fair in 2016, the OPC President looks back at achievements and forward to future opportunities, as well as challenges and limitations – for instance in the area of security.

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Membership growth continues unabated

A few years ago, the OPC Foundation was still a meeting place for technology experts; but today, the global association is welcoming an increasing number of new members from the OPC-UA user community. As Stefan Hoppe reports: "The number of affiliated companies is rapidly growing worldwide. Currently, the list of OPC-UA members amounts to nearly 700 globally. It is very gratifying to see that more and more end-users are turning to the Foundation.

Companies such as Volkswagen, Foxconn, Samsung and Miele are demanding the functionalities of OPC UA in their automation environments. They are thus pushing the development of topics with a strong background and sometimes at breakneck speed. For example, the first, more intensive contact with Foxconn (Fii) took place in Spring 2019.

By early July, the company hosted an OPC Day with several hundred participants in Shenzhen. These dynamic developments have a significant impact both externally and internally for the entire Foundation. The dynamics also underline the fact that the OPC Group learns quickly, is extremely agile and works at a high speed in implementation."

New Companion Specification for the AutoID World

The value of OPC UA for the AutoID world was demonstrated by the publication of the first OPC Unified Architecture for AutoID Companion Specification at the Hannover Trade Fair in 2016.

Prior to the publication of this Companion Specification, which was developed by the AIM System Integration Working Group at the urging of Auto-ID hardware manufacturers Siemens and Harting in 2014, the communication of AutoID devices via proprietary interfaces was the standard. To make matters worse, different communication standards were often established for different technologies – RFID, barcode, etc. The manufacturer's own interfaces necessitated a considerable effort in system integration.

"With the first Companion Specification, a solid foundation was established for a promising technology and manufacturer-independent communication standard in the AutoID sector," recalls Olaf Wilmsmeier. The Companion Specification supported the dissemination of OPC UA as a communication standard.

"OPC UA is the standard for communication in the automation industry. There are hardly any suppliers or machine manufacturers worldwide that do not rely on OPC UA as an interface option. Being able to also have AutoID devices communicate via the same interface in this current environment was an enormous step towards an efficient future for system integration," says Olaf Wilmsmeier.

However, since nothing is as constant as change, the AutoID Companion Specification has undergone further development.

A solution is only good if it is also being implemented

"What became apparent after the publication in 2016 was that the AutoID Companion Specification was very well-suited for companies such as Microsoft for cloud connections or for ERP providers in connecting MES solutions like SAP. OPC UA was implemented more cautiously in the environment of PLC providers. Only a few companies in the PLC environment have already worked with methods and complex data at an early stage, as it is preferred in the IT world. That was the incentive to expand the Companion Specification now," reports Stefan Hoppe.

This expansion was made in the presentation of a new release at the Hannover Trade Fair in 2019. "The documents prepared by the AIM-D working group are currently in the accreditation phase with all members of the OPC Foundation," explains Olaf Wilmsmeier.

He elaborates, "The new release comprises numerous simplifications and improvements. Simplifications in particular for the use of OPC UA in the AutoID sector. The demands of end-users for OPC-UA-enabled hardware is one of the driving forces for further development. So far, this has led to a number of successes in implementation."

Numerous well-known manufacturers of AutoID technology already rely on OPC UA - starting with Harting and Siemens. The established automation technology providers Sick, Turck, Balluff and Leuze have also developed AutoID-enabled devices.

"The fact that an increasing number of suppliers are committed to developments in the direction of OPC UA is certainly also motivated by recent developments in numerous branches of industry - and in this context the automotive industry deserves a special mention." Stefan Hoppe is aware that "OPC UA is still a very young technology in the field of standard technologies, therefore the actual boom is yet to come. After all, a technological solution is only really good if it is implemented and actively used in a wide range of applications."


The "OPC wheel" does not need to be reinvented

For Olaf Wilmsmeier, OPC UA is an ideal tool for monitoring the complexity of highly automated production processes, with the extensions and new features presented in the new release:

"In practical use, the application of the AutoID Companion Specification means that acquisition hardware from a wide variety of manufacturers can be used. It is irrelevant whether the signal types – RFID, 1D/2D barcode, OCR and so forth – are generated. All manufacturers have settled on the same data description with OPC UA and the Companion Specification on the same interface. A further component of this success is the fact that the specification implements all AutoID technologies. The hardware vendors had started with providing UHF devices, but now the application possibilities also extend to HF, barcode and many more. The advantage for the user is that a HF reader from manufacturer A, a barcode reader from manufacturer B and a UHF reader from manufacturer C can be addressed in one application via one in the same interface. All these technologies participate in the new features of the new release.”

For Stefan Hoppe and Olaf Wilmsmeier the publication of the new release demonstrates "par excellence, the versatility and extensibility of OPC UA." The existing information model did not have to be reinvented, but simply expanded to meet new requirements.

Harmonizing cross-domain information models

With the increasing success of the implementation of OPC-UA, new challenges arise.

"In addition to the Companion Specification for the AutoID industry, each industry sector has its own information model - from oil and gas to the process industry and robotics. The application of OPC UA reduces engineering costs in every sector," says Stefan Hoppe. He adds: "The fact that the VDMA has the topic OPC UA on its agenda in 17 working groups today (with even more in development) shows the current significance of this universal communication model."

This dynamic development creates new challenges for the OPC Foundation, as Stefan Hoppe reports: "The multitude of defined specifications leads to duplication in some places. The subject of asset management, power management or firmware updates can be found not only in the machines used in the process industry, but also in robotics or on an oil drilling platform.”

In order to meet this requirement, it is now, according to Stefan Hoppe, an important next step to establish a cross-domain harmonization group for the comprehensive modeling of information models within the OPC Foundation.

"What is now necessary, for example, has been demonstrated in the AutoID industry by merging within a sector and developing a sector-wide Companion Specification. The next step in interoperability is to examine where similarities exist between the specifications in other areas in order to minimize these overlaps."

The next step of interoperability is to check where there are similarities to the specifications of other areas in order to minimize these overlaps. "The aim of this cross-group work within the Foundation is to transfer global data, for example from an MES interface, to a generally-available repository one level higher.“

This will prevent each working group from independently defining data types for identical applications. The outlook for this cross-domain harmonization is a glimpse into the future of the Foundation and at the same time, the greatest challenge which – although started in July 2019 – will not be completed within a year," says the OPC president, reviewing the focus of the Foundation's work in the coming years. "This focus will be continuously accompanied by the Foundation's work – an ongoing process."

Interoperability does not end at your own factory door

In the development of new specifications, there are always similar types of methods and variables. Olaf Wilmsmeier says, "In M2M communication, functions have the same names and are defined in the same units. Therefore, the next step is to consider these aspects globally. The AutoID-OPC working group of AIM-D will naturally be involved in these developments.”

However, the focus is not limited solely to the various acquisition hardware. According to the AutoID expert:

"The field of sensor technology is one of the most promising for the future. The fusion of UHF and sensor technology will definitely find its way into the AutoID Companion Specification. A separate working group under the auspices of AIM-D is already dedicated to this topic. As soon as a new release is finished, the work begins immediately on the next one."

The best security is the one that is implemented

OPC UA provides security built in by design. An analysis by the Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) underlines that this is much more than just a marketing slogan.

BSI experts have intensively examined all aspects and functionalities of OPC UA and come to the conclusion that OPC UA has a high level of security.

"All methodologies on the subject of security are available. However, these have to be implemented comprehensively and, above all, correctly by the users - because even the best lock in the world is useless if it is not locked or if the key is easily accessible," a striking comparison made by Stefan Hoppe.

End-to-end eliminates vulnerabilities

"The OPC Foundation and its members were and still are deeply and firmly convinced of end-to-end encryption and were unable to detect any weaknesses in OPC UA that could pose a potential security risk," emphasizes Stefan Hoppe. He adds: "The end-to-end functionality is precisely the feature that OPC UA has been using to stay ahead of other systems such as some broker-based communication.”

The OPC Foundation has integrated three different security levels into the UA technology, one of which is end-to-end encryption from the sender of the message to the recipient of the message.

"This approach has proven to be very robust. According to the BSI, the disclosure of the OPC UA source code has proven to be a further factor in this security robustness. The open source approach enables security experts to gain detailed insight and detect vulnerabilities. As an example, the security company Kaspersky has made a valuable contribution to a sample code in order to demonstrate the high security level of OPC UA. This transparency is precisely the argument from which the industry that uses it draws confidence."

The OPC Foundation is aware, however, that with all the security features of UA technology, M2M communication is just one piece of the puzzle in an overall solution.

"If the underlying hardware is backlogged at chip level, as was often the case with the media in 2018, then even the best and most secure software is powerless. We must therefore trust in the security of the hardware and at the same time acknowledge that we as the OPC Foundation have absolutely no influence on it.”

Strengthening security in the AutoID industry

With this in mind, AIM-D established AK Security in AutoID in order to address these topics specifically for the AutoID sector.

"We are fully aware that we can only ever consider 'security' within a clearly defined framework and must trust that other adjacent sectors, such as semiconductor manufacturing, have a comparable understanding of security to that of AIM-D or the OPC Foundation," says Olaf Wilmsmeier.

According to the AutoID expert, it is important to always use the right methods for data transmission.

"The methods are available – it is always important to define exactly which security level is required in which application. In practice, it makes a difference whether a pallet is to be captured via an RFID interface or if a complex machine is to be controlled. Sometimes it is alarming to see that from different sides, be it from the OPC Foundation or from the BSI, comprehensive information exists in the form of guidelines, which are not used and implemented by every company. This means that security will always have two sides. On the one hand, everything that is technologically and methodically necessary has to be developed; on the other hand, users have to take responsibility for implementing it."


Committed to independence and neutrality

"The Foundation is 100 percent independent and cannot be dominated by a single company," emphasizes Stefan Hoppe firmly.

"There is no risk, for example, that the world's two largest automation companies will take the helm and steer the Foundation according to their will. The voice of a small company is just as important as that of a global corporation. This independence, along with the transparency of the open source solution of UA technology, is the Foundation's greatest strength - and, at the same time, the only way to achieve worldwide acceptance among companies from a wide variety of industrial sectors."

Nevertheless, the Foundation's work is not unaffected by global politics and/or politically-initiated economic developments.

"Like any other association or alliance, the OPC Foundation registers global developments and moods. We need to be vigilant and very careful in observing and analyzing what significance this can have on the Foundation's work and objectives. From the Foundation's point of view, it is tremendously important to involve as many companies from as many countries around the world as possible, in order to stick to the idea of a universal, globally-usable standard," concludes Stefan Hoppe.

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Stefan Hoppe
Stefan Hoppe
President & Executive Director
Verl, Germany
Alexander Allmendinger
Alexander Allmendinger
Test Lab Manager
Salach, Germany
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