What’s ‘Open’ on the Factory Floor is Not What’s ‘Open’ to IT

Moving is supposed to be the third most stressful event, outranked only by death and divorce. And if you’ve ever moved a long distance, you know that there are always surprises. Sometimes they’re pleasant – the new place has really wonderful bike paths or nice parks or something else that’s better than the place you left. Sometimes it’s not so pleasant – the people may be more clannish in the new place, or the weather is awful for most of the year.

As more and more IT people move to the factory floor in one way or another, they’re often experiencing more of the not so pleasant surprises. It’s not as nice and as homey as the IT department from which they came.

First, there’s the proprietary nature about the place. Face it, big automation vendors have tried their best to lock out competitors. The factory floor is a place where it’s possible for a vendor to dominate a market sector or a geographical region – unlike IT. , The factory floor market is big but it’s not as ubiquitous as IT. Everybody does IT. Only a very small percentage of business have a factory with machines that make something. It’s easier to dominate a smaller industry like factory automation.

Also, when somebody needs machines to make stuff to sell, it’s critical that those machines keep running. In that environment, where the company depends on those machines operating flawlessly, it’s much riskier to use an off-brand machine controller than an off-brand reporting program. The stakes are a lot higher for the factory automation people than the one’s doing HR or accounting. You don’t go out of business if the human resource system is down for a few days. In factory automation, risk is paramount, so people seek the safety of choosing a vendor with the best reputation in the field.

From proprietary to open architectures

Not that these vendors haven’t done everything they can to lock out competition over the last 40 years. They started with proprietary to “protect the customer”. If the customer bought all their stuff, it would all work together and we’d be right there to help you with it. That lasted for about 20 years until in the 1980s GM said “enough of this; you’re opening up your architectures.” That led to all the networking technologies we’ve deployed since then – DeviceNet, EtherNet/IP, Profibus DP, ProfiNet IO and others.
Even though the networking architectures are now open, the controllers are not. There are no good ways to access the data table of anybody’s PLCs. They just don’t want other folks reading and writing their data tables. Even simple stuff, like reading a few analog values out of a PLC is costly and complex. And forget about moving data between controllers from the different vendors.

This is all starting to change. OPC UA is now being put in the new Siemens Controllers. That gives users a standard way to access the PLC from the Enterprise. That’s a big step forward but it’s going to only be on a tiny, tiny percentage of their deployed product line for the foreseeable future. We’ll see how Rockwell responds to that. They’ve been very reluctant to open their controllers.
Another culture shock that IT people face is the definition of “open.” Open on the factory floor means that there is a published specification. We consider DeviceNet, Profibus DP, EtherNet/IP and ProfiNet IO to be open. IT people don’t. Unless it’s open source, to them it’s not open.

It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out. I’d argue that in the factory world we need well-defined, supported and maintained standards. It’s critical to us that our devices play nice together and that they do that for a long, long time. In IT, nothing lasts very long – those systems are always changing. In our world, a system can last for 20 or 30 years. We can’t have some open source technology where developers are constantly tweaking it. That’s risky in our environment.

But the IT folks are moving in, in droves, they’re taking over the factory floor and you can expect them to force more openness and that’s a good thing. Maybe not a good thing for the Siemens and Rockwells of the world, but a good place for all of us to move to. Let’s go!