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The Future of Industry Is in Data Interoperability

Solutions Review’s Contributed Content Series is a collection of contributed articles written by thought leaders in enterprise tech. In this feature, Schneider Electric’s Barbara Frei offers commentary on how the future of industry resides in data interoperability.

IDC predicted that organizations that share data, applications, and operations with their industry ecosystem will enjoy a revenue increase three percentage points higher than organizations that do not share this information in a similar fashion. It appears that prediction held true, as sharing data has helped firms improve KPIs related to innovation, business agility, and digital transformation.  

Better business performance, however it’s measured, sounds like a good reason to follow these organizations’ lead. But is data sharing a reality in most industrial companies today? 

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The Future of Industry Is in Data Interoperability

The Data-Availability Revolution Fuels Modern Industry 

Ten or twenty years ago, sharing data in this capacity wasn’t even a consideration. Most organizations likely would have been very limited in the data they could collect, given the lack of connectivity and connected devices at the time. However, the COVID-19 pandemic era accelerated the change that has been occurring over the years since these connection-less days.  

The challenge many industrial firms experience today is a glut of data coursing through their systems. Decision makers are likely to ask themselves how they can capture business insights and create value from the data they already have.  

Those disruption-fueled years marked an inflection point that signaled the industrial landscape changing from one lacking data to one questioning how to best leverage the large volumes of data they do have. The new paradigm and attendant challenges are centered around data interoperability and why it’s a game-changer for industrial and manufacturing businesses.  

Closed Systems Represent an Operations Bottleneck 

For today’s industrial applications to function, systems must communicate with other systems. Machines have to be able to work with other machines, and assets from different manufacturers, vendors, and suppliers, must function seamlessly in the same environment. Firms are turning to software-centric industrial automation systems to manage this increasingly complex array of assets to great success. As digitization increases, so does the need for interoperability of the data these assets generate.   

Exacerbating data challenges are various factors, many external. Different standards and protocols lead to siloed subsystems and make engineering less efficient and operations more error-prone. Often used, closed, and proprietary automation architectures make most industrial applications hardware-dependent, tying industrial software applications to specific hardware throughout the application lifecycle.  

As plants grow and the number of data points multiplies, these problems become ever more challenging.  

Against this backdrop, industrial firms must aggregate, consolidate, and ensure the quality of their data. This includes all the information that systems and assets feed into software platforms. Interoperability allows software platforms to access data from wherever firms are in the industrial lifecycle – across domains and even from external sources. Interoperability also allows firms to analyze the rich data pool to generate precise predictions for engineering, operation, maintenance, as well as tracking and tracing supply networks. 

More precise predictions enable a proactive posture for plant operators, and real-time analytics allow organizations to make better business decisions. 

Universal Automation Can Change the Data Game, Again 

To enable game-changing predictions, while solving the challenges of complex environments, industrial companies must connect their disparate systems and assets. Many are adopting software-based automation platforms that serve as a center for universal automation, connecting systems for SKADA, digital twin, and analytics in a comprehensive software ecosystem. Universal automation ensures data is usable, complete, and available across different systems regardless of vendor or supplier.  

Universal automation can take operational technology (OT) data from the shop floor and translate it into high-level enterprise IT systems. For example, connecting a conveying line to a software-based automation platform will allow it to easily adapt to the output flow. Automating line adjustments will reduce unexpected downtime and improve efficiency. 

Introducing repeatable efficiency also addresses the current industrial workforce shortage. Software tools help upskill traditional automation engineers, who are used to programming PLCs in ladder logic, to be more IT-proficient and focus on system modeling. Adopting modern automation systems can also onboard a new generation of IT-oriented industry professionals. 

A Standards-Based Approach Will Move Interoperability Forward, a community of like-minded vendors, technology providers, and users, sees the benefits of software-enabled universal automation. Organizations in this community understand two major roadblocks to widespread and seamless automation.  

  1. Most of today’s industrial automation standards only match one specific function or one specific layer in an industrial control system architecture.
  2. Industrial automation systems are built on applications or use cases.  

These challenges make interoperability at the application layer extremely difficult. As a result, the community espouses a common shared-source software layer across all industrial solutions.  

The industrial sector must continue in this vein and call for an ecosystem of portable and interoperable software components that are independent of the underlying hardware infrastructure. Basing this ecosystem on the IEC 61499 standard for interoperability can help create industrial automation’s own app store—where users can find plug-and-produce software that works with any compliant device. 

With this approach, users will no longer be tied to one specific vendor’s products. Moreover, encouraging developers to create an expansive library of shareable and reusable apps will fuel future innovation and growth.  

Industrial organizations that open data to their ecosystem will benefit from seamless connectivity and digital data continuity. Before data sharing becomes widespread, we must come together as an industry to break down barriers to this shared goal. The result will be plug-and-produce operations to help make more resilient, effective, and future-proof industries.

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