OI4 Alliance: When machines speak the same language

Around three years ago, leading companies from the IT, automation and mechanical engineering sectors joined forces to push the vision of Industry 4.0 – promised for years but only implemented sluggishly – to finally achieve a decisive, practical breakthrough here. Did it help and where are we today?

A commentary by Hendrik Nieweg

Open Industry Alliance 4.0

Then, as now, the mission of the Open Industry 4.0 Alliance (OI4) to accelerate digital transformation was based on the idea of creating application-oriented framework conditions for smart factory operators, increasingly confronted with a heterogeneous machine and system landscape. The aim is to enable individual machines in production halls to be networked with the cloud as simply (and, of course, securely) as possible. To this end, an open and interoperable ecosystem is to be established between the manufacturers of machines, systems and software, for which the alliance did not define any new standards, however, instead drawing on existing sets of rules.

Agile architecture for the end customer

An open architecture based on RAMI 4.0 was developed as the technological foundation for this, itself based on the four building blocks Device/Edge Connectivity, Edge Computing, Operator Cloud and Cloud Central as well as associated services. The special thing about this is that the architecture is agile, easy to implement and, most importantly, vendor- independent – all of which are key requirements on the part of end customers. The fact that the approach works is confirmed by initial trials, for example by the Danish MADE FAST initiative in the digitization and automation of companies such as Danfoss and LEGO. Another successful practical example is the internal production networking of a robot cell at robotics and automation specialist KUKA, a founding member of the alliance.

"The noticeable market response and growth in membership tells us that the open and collaborative mindset of the OI4 Alliance is the right way to develop and scale IIoT-based products and services."

Hendrik Nieweg, VP Cloud Solutions bei Device Insight
Hendrik Nieweg
Member of the Executive Board at Device Insight

The greatest advantage of the OI4 Alliance is its open and solution-oriented organizational form. OI4-compliant products and services are made public in the specially managed Marketplace, and architecture and implementation recommendations are openly communicated in white papers. True to the idea of being an implementation alliance, interfaces are realized as open APIs that are made publicly available to software developers. In addition, a company does not have to be a compulsory member to offer OI4-compliant solutions – removing barriers to competition and facilitating implementation in the brownfield environment.

Innovation through co-development

The noticeable market response and the growth in members (in addition to Festo, KUKA, Microsoft, SAP, Siemens, Voith, Weidmüller, around 100 members are now involved within OI4) show us that the open and collaborative mindset of the OI4 Alliance is the right way to develop and scale IIoT-based products and services.

Similarly, all contributors are aware that building an open, interoperable ecosystem is a time- consuming endeavor. For a relevant external impact, a critical mass of active members was first necessary, which has now been achieved. The next step was to bring together partners working on common, related, or interdependent topics within OI4 – a process that continues to gain momentum through the constant addition of new members. Now it is a matter of convincing users, system integrators and factory operators of our OI4 approach. This overarching and ongoing goal can be traced throughout OI4’s work.

OI4 Architecture
The 4-tier architecture of the OI4 Alliance: Using open standard interfaces based on the Asset Administration Shell (AAS), it is possible to bring assets onboard automatically, i.e. machines and systems.

Exactly how heterogeneous the needs on the part of customers and users turn out to be when it comes to networking the components of a manufacturing operation has once again become clearer through the open exchange within the OI4 Alliance – fundamentally confirming the approach of an open ecosystem. Imagine a typical use case for smart manufacturing: In most cases, we are dealing with a highly heterogeneous machine park, which has grown organically in some cases and combines different manufacturers, machine generations, interfaces, and protocols, not to mention several types of software. Anyone who wants to enter the market here with a “closed source” solution will sooner or later come up against limits, for example when a connection does not work, and recognize the need for a partner network. It is precisely for this reason that at OI4, the specialists for individual problems come together at one table to develop holistic solution concepts.

Courage to develop new solution concepts

As far as the implementation of the OI4 architecture is concerned, I would like to emphasize that we always rely on standards and best practices taken from concrete IIoT customer projects. Concepts such as containerizing software packages, harmonizing data close to the machine, and configuring software from the cloud are all topics that OI4 contributors, like us at Device Insight, are familiar with as IoT providers, striving to best meet the needs of new use cases. However, in order to actually fill the envisioned open ecosystem of OI4 with life, we need even more openness and willingness on the part of users and operators to try out the alliance’s solution concepts. That is my wish for the future – loosely based on the saying: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”

Hendrik Nieweg is a member of Device Insight’s management team and co-author of the OI4 technical white paper “Enhanced Industry 4.0 Interoperability for Quicker ROI.”.

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