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The world language for robots

Together with industry partners such as Siemens and SAP, Volkswagen is pushing ahead with the digitization of production. This is where the OPC UA standard comes in.

Who still remembers the past when you connected a mouse to your PC and it didn’t spring into action immediately? Before there was “plug-and-play”? Back then you had to find the right port, find and install the appropriate driver, and generally sacrifice a lot of time and nerves with the whole process. Until the next update came, or the driver didn’t work anymore – when the whole episode started from scratch again.

Imagine that you don’t just have a mouse and a PC, but thousands of them, all different, that you have to set up again and again, adjusting them to the overall system – while maintaining a huge production flow and manufacturing and logistics processes coordinated right down to the smallest detail. Welcome to industry, welcome to Volkswagen! Because different manufacturers of robots and machines use different hardware, software and interfaces – which the manufacturer then has to adjust to each other at the end of the production chain in their respective production plants so that they function accordingly.

“That’s where we’re going!”

Michael Schweiger, Volkswagen Account & Demand Manager

“Today there are up to 12 different machine languages in use worldwide, which doesn’t exactly make global networking of plants easy,” says Michael Schweiger, Volkswagen Account & Demand Manager. He is in charge of OPC UA (Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture), together with around 30 people working on the topic across all brands in the Volkswagen Group. Schweiger says: “There are still many different data building blocks, different communication protocols, all in all a confusion of different technologies. This is a massive challenge in production. We want to simplify this considerably. And that’s where we’re going now!”

Plug-and-Produce

The solution is called OPC UA and is an open communication standard for machines. “You can imagine it like the world language Esperanto; just for robots – an artificial language that was specially developed for machines to communicate with each other without any problems,” says Schweiger. Basically, it’s like using a mouse and a PC in the past and in the present. It used to be cumbersome and took a long time – now it’s plug-and-play. Applied analogously to industry 4.0, one could say, “plug-and-produce”.

  • OPC UA and Industry 4.0

    The abbreviation OPC UA stands for “Open Platform Communications Unified Architecture”. A standardized machine language, which should enable "Plug-and-Produce" in industry 4.0, analogous to “Plug-and-Play” as it is familiar with a standard computer mouse and a PC - plug in and start without having to install a driver. OPC UA standardizes the transport of data as well as interfaces and security mechanisms. The data can be measured values, sensor data, controlled variables or control instructions. OPC UA is interesting for industry in general and for the automotive industry in particular with regard to digitization and automation in the context of industry 4.0. Numerous industrial partners such as Siemens and IT specialists such as Microsoft and SAP were represented at the “OPC UA Day Automotive” held on May 23 2019 at Volkswagen Group in Wolfsburg, as well as the VDMA (German Engineering Federation) and members of AIDA (Automation Initiative of German Automobile Manufacturers) with Audi, Porsche, the Volkswagen brand as well as BMW and Daimler.

“Our facilities will become much more efficient”

Participants at the “OPC UA Automotive Day” at Volkswagen Group in Wolfsburg

The scale of the subject is immense: more than 5,000 robots and several thousand systems are in use at Volkswagen’s main plant in Wolfsburg alone. The Group has 122 locations worldwide. Volkswagen is pushing ahead with the digitization and networking of all these systems. Suppliers and partner companies are soon to become part of this global data network. In the long term, it is planned to set up a comprehensive digital industrial infrastructure, including the Volkswagen Industrial Cloud. The OPC UA standard is to be introduced at selected Volkswagen plants by 2022. Thomas Zembok, Head of Automation Technology at Volkswagen, also expects a lot from the introduction of OPC UA: “The separation between information technology and operational technology, can be eliminated in this way. This will make our systems much more efficient.”

Faster, cheaper, more flexible and safer

Smart machine language: OPC UA-based robot at the “OPC UA Day Automotive” at Volkswagen Group in Wolfsburg, Germany

Schweiger adds: “The system and individual elements no longer have to be constantly reconfigured. A new robot will be delivered in the future, docks itself to the system almost automatically, independent of the manufacturer, and can be started immediately. The advantages of OPC UA are therefore a more efficient and cheaper start-up and installation costs as well as more flexibility in the use of the machines in production. In addition, there is an integrated security system and the option of easy access to standardized data provided by the various machines and interfaces. In addition, employees do not have to master 12 different machine languages and keep them up to date – only OPC UA. All this is essential for automation and digitization in production, i.e. for industry 4.0. For Schweiger, the goal is clear: “We want to define the industry standards.”

OPC UA as the worldwide standard

Michael Schweiger, Volkswagen Account & Demand Manager (l.) and Stefan Hoppe, President of the OPC Foundation

Stefan Hoppe, President of the OPC Foundation with more than 700 members worldwide, emphasizes the flexibility and scalability of the communication standard: “You can freely decide and configure which machines should work with one another or service at different levels and exchange information. In the past, such an exchange usually only took place at a higher or lower level of the system.” Since its market launch in 2007, OPC UA has spread to more and more industries, says Hoppe: “Interfaces for communication are needed everywhere, with OPC UA, for example, a deep-sea drilling robot for the oil industry has already been standardized, as well as industrial equipment for industrial sized kitchens.”  

Most important building block for industry 4.0

Basically, the most important buzzword is interoperability. “It’s about making it easy to interconnect machines and services from different manufacturers.” Hoppe gives an example: “In general, the problem in industry is often the following: You bring a machine into a production line, but then you have to contract another, third company. The company then needs half a week or a week for this integration work. So you have to pay an additional 5,000 to 10,000 euros, and only then is the machine connected via SAP, Microsoft, cloud systems and so on. And today, OPC UA standardizes this in ten minutes, with integrated security.” According to Hoppe, OPC UA is therefore the most important basic module for Industry 4.0. And Volkswagen AG, as a member of the OPC Foundation, is involved in developing and implementing this basic module. Because how often does it apply, whether for people or smart machines: it works more efficiently if you understand each other and speak the same language.