By Holger Paul
People communicate in many ways: with looks, gestures and, of course, through language and the accompanying grammar. Because it simplifies communication, the world has settled on English as a global language. Machines also need to communicate with one another in the digital age - but what language should they speak?
One thing is clear: Industry can have no interest in introducing an array of different, manufacturer-specific machine languages that make seamless communication, for example between machines from different manufacturers or across national borders, impossible. What is needed is a standard that specifies how the required information is to be exchanged. Developing such a standard is an ambitious goal - and VDMA will play a crucial role in this process.
"Right now, we are defining the global language of production," comments Andreas Faath soberly but confidently. The VDMA expert for machine communication is part of a small team of specialists who are working on developing standards that define how individual machinery types can "talk" to one another based on the manufacturer-independent communication architecture OPC UA (Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture, IEC 62541). In simple terms, it is a basic language for devices including machine tools, injection molding machines, and robots. Known as OPC UA companion specifications, these are being developed by VDMA in collaboration with a large number of companies from all over the world.
All the way up to the cloud
The specifications ensure that two connected machines can exchange essential information in a standardized manner: What type of machine is it? Who is the manufacturer? Which device configurations are important? Which process data needs to be exchanged? This communication is needed not only horizontally between the machines, but also vertically - that is, with the workpiece or a higher-level plant or system, all the way up to the cloud. "This is the only way that 'plug and play' can work in the factory," explains Faath. "We are creating a kind of universal remote control - which in theory will work for all machine types."
However, work on such an OPC UA companion specification is already proving tougher than expected. On the one hand, if the standard is ultimately to become established worldwide, a large number of manufacturers have to be prepared to participate. On the other, it is not merely an interface between two machines, but rather an entire process chain, as Thorsten Kühmann, Managing Director of VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery explains. After all, the aim is not simply to develop a means of communication between two injection molding machines, but also to connect them to other devices such as robot systems. "It is therefore of paramount importance that machinery industries all work together. The overall architecture must be right and perfectly coordinated," he comments.
A neutral platform for the development process
Both experts agree that VDMA is the only organization that is capable of creating these important standards today. VDMA's 3,200 member companies with their subsidiaries and partners all over the world contribute an unparalleled wealth of knowledge to the process. At the same time, VDMA acts as a neutral platform for the development process - so there can be no suspicion that individual companies are using it to further their own interests. "Because it has so many members, VDMA is currently the only organization that can develop and introduce such worldwide standards for machine language," says Kühmann. Accordingly, the VDMA trade associations are setting about their work with a great deal of commitment. OPC UA companion specifications have already been published for five machine types, including machine tools and robots. A further 16 specifications are currently in progress, for devices such as foundry machinery, woodworking machinery, and electric drives. Awareness of the global language for production will be raised further at the Hannover Messe 2019. VDMA will be working with partners such as the OPC Foundation to host the first World Interoperability Conference, where the players behind OPC UA will present themselves to an international audience together for the first time. "The critical mass of companies that use OPC UA for development has now been reached - OPC UA is the basis of the factory of the future," says Andreas Faath. "But in many industries we still need to win over a sufficient number of companies who are willing to help draw up a companion specification."