Open Process Automation with OPAF and CPLANE.ai
Summary: In this episode I discuss open process automation and how it is transforming industrial control, with my guest Brandon Williams, co-founder of CPLANE.ai and a member of the Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF).
- What is open process automation and OPAF?
- How can open process automation help control system end users?
- Impact on compute power, data analytics, cybersecurity, flexibility, and TCO
- Importance of innovation for security, competitiveness, and workforce
- Steps someone can take to get involved in this movement
Guest Bio: Brandon Williams is a co-founder of the Silicon Valley software company, CPLANE.ai. Brandon is a daily innovator and practitioner of IT/OT convergence using orchestration. He is a former U.S. nuclear submarine officer and holds an MBA in Operations and Finance from the Wharton School.
About OPAF: The Open Process Automation™ Forum is focused on developing a standards-based, open, secure, interoperable process control architecture. The Forum is a consensus-based group of end users, suppliers, system integrators, standards organizations, and academia. It addresses both technical and business issues for process automation.
What is open process automation and why is it important?
Imagine an industrial control environment where software and hardware across different vendors integrates seamlessly together. The benefits are plentiful and significant. Manufacturers could choose different vendors for different portions of their control systems, based on their preferences. Seamless integration would enable faster speeds in commissioning new control systems and making updates to existing control systems. That’s open process automation. And it’s time has come.
That’s why we wanted to learn more from Brandon Williams, a member of the Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF).
What is the Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF)?
In this episode, we discuss how open process automation, led by OPAF, is transforming industrial control. OPAF started as a collection of leading industrial manufacturers and end-user manufacturers who paved the way for a complete redesign of the traditionally closed and proprietary distributed control systems (DCS) architectures.
OPAF is a consensus-based group of end users, suppliers, system integrators, and professionals from standards organizations as well as academia who work together to address technical and business issues for process automation. They work on developing a process control architecture that is: standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable.
The output from OPAF is the Open Process Automation™ Standard (O-PAS) specifying how vendors could make components to ensure they can be easily integrated. The standard also supports and informs systems integrators on seamless integrations. The result: a customer in this space will have best-of-breed options, able to choose from different control components with confidence that the integration capabilities will create a unified, operationally-sound solution.
Interview with Brandon Williams
How has your experience led to your involvement in open process automation? My path to being in a standards body -- and being excited about my role -- is not traditional. I began my career as a nuclear submarine officer. My first responsibility in the US Navy was to learn the design, operation, and maintenance of a nuclear reactor—the steam propulsion plan, the electric generation, and distribution systems. In many ways it was really an industrial system, though very unusual and highly specialized. But the US Navy has a fantastic training program for its nuclear fleet, and I was a beneficiary of that system and of the culture.
Since my career in the US Navy, I’ve been involved in infrastructure software for the telecom and cloud industries. Now, my work in process automation is a convergence of these two experiences.
More recently, I cofounded a software company with John Casey, called CPLANE.ai. We were invited by a large DCS vendor to demonstrate how our orchestration software could be used in a new generation of industrial control systems. Then, we were asked to bring that experience, learning, and capability into the Open Process Automation Forum.
How can open automation help customers and users in the industrial space?
Open automation provides three high-level benefits:
- Increase in compute capability
- Enhanced security
- Lower total cost of ownership
An industrial control system (ICS) based on open process automation standards will have an increase of least 500 times the compute power of an existing DCS. The use of the common data format, linear predictive coding, or LPC, has important implications:
- Opens the ICS to run powerful software applications, such as predictive control models, which are right in the control loop
- Pertains to artificial intelligence and machine learning applications
- Allows real-time data inside the ICS to be shared outside the system without having to go through data gateways or intermediaries and format changes
- Able to run more sophisticated applications inside the ICS, making a big impact on profitability and operations
Consider this real-world example of native connectivity: In an open architecture, the ICS could natively host more advanced data analytics and have those applications provide feedback or insight directly to the control logic. The open architecture allows native connectivity—as opposed to cobbling something together, out to the cloud, to IoT platforms, to corporate ERP solutions or applications. Native connectivity is an order of magnitude easier and safer than what happens today, and of course it is tied to the digital transformation currently underway in industrial environments.
Reaching 500-times increase in compute power with the open system
When we analyze traditional DCS systems, we see that many vendors have owned every part of the stack—in many cases all the way down to the sensors and actuators, and up to the advanced computing platform (ACP) and applications that run the ACP. The result is a DCS architecture with design decisions that made sense in 1985 or 1995, or even 2000. Because it’s a complete system, it’s difficult and expensive to change one thing without changing the entire stack.
If you're going to take advantage of Moore’s law, a prediction made by American engineer Gordon Moore in 1965 that the number of transistors per silicon chip doubles every year, you need an open system. That’s why the IT industry has rocketed forward in capability and, quite honestly, the OT industry gets stuck in a proprietary stack that makes it difficult to upgrade.
Here’s what we see happen a lot. When we’re going to upgrade a DCS or control system, the request is to create a design and configuration that mimics what was there before rather than take advantage of new capabilities available in the system. What happens in that environment is captured well in a book called, “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” by Harvard University Business School professor Clayton Christensen. The book explains how successful companies might fail in the face of disruptive innovation.
OPAF and O-PAS are a step function disruption in the market. In the DCS space, vendors are competing with each other, but none are quite able to completely disrupt the market.
In addition to increased compute power and the ability to better use data to do more analytics at the edge or in the cloud, what are other benefits of open automation?
The next major benefit to the end user of an O-PAS system is the incorporation of security principles and frameworks throughout the entire architecture. Firewalls and air gaps today are not enough. From a risk perspective, this may be the most pressing motivation to change to an open-based control system.
Consider this real-world security example: An O-PAS system can make patches and security updates automatically throughout the entire ICS without interrupting plant operations. Security compliance becomes automatic, and you have logs making it simple to verify. This is not true in traditional systems.
Another real-world security example: When a threat or breach is detected, you have an advanced system management set of features that can take immediate action. You might be able to move a control function off an infected control device and onto a nearby secure device without any interruption in plant operations or without any operator action. Those capabilities are intrinsic to the O-PAS standard.
What about the final benefit you mentioned – how does an open system attain a lower cost of ownership?
One point that’s often talked about is flexibility and total cost of ownership. This is what launched the whole OPAF movement. To be frank, end users were tired of vendor lock-in. It was preventing flexibility and the ability to make changes in their operations. End users felt trapped by the innovation cycle of their DCS vendor, which also came with high costs.
By contrast, open control systems allow users to change in small increments and over time. This can have a big impact on operations—frequent changes with low impact at a fraction of the cost and effort of a legacy DCS.
The open architecture and open standard make the whole system flexible by design. Components are pre-engineered to be interoperable, making it easier to update or enhance the control system throughout the lifecycle of the plant.
How can end users learn more about what's possible with an open system and how they can take steps in that direction?
My first suggestion is to learn more about O-PAS, starting with this video series linked below. Second, I would say, get involved in OPAF - an organization of a lot of smart people working hard at this every week. If you’re engaged, you can find out how you, as an end user or vendor, can benefit from and contribute to the conversations and the resources.
Change is always difficult. Companies have invested a lot of money and time into their systems, their vendor relationships, and to training their people. There’s a lot of inertia and resistance to change when it comes to innovation. What you want to avoid is a situation where innovation is forced upon you, by surprise, as an end user or as an operator. For instance, COVID was a surprise that required innovation in the capabilities of a control system.
Security by obscurity is not a viable strategy. It’s really no strategy at all and the cost of neglecting to upgrade to a modern, secure ICS will probably far outweigh all the other investment risks that process manufacturers will take.
Advances in software bring changes in the competitiveness of the market and have been known to tilt the balance in two ways:
- Competitive companies have better software. Process engineers may not want to hear this, but companies with better software are going to be a lot more flexible and profitable. An open system will help a company implement better software, faster.
- Top talent follows innovation. Young workers simply are not going to invest in learning legacy equipment, and there’s no more important asset to your company’s future than the talent you’re able to attract.
Smart managers and executives know this. Software, talent, cyber security—it’s all part of this wave of innovation, of how open process automation is transforming industrial control.
How is your company, CPLANE.ai, making a contribution in this space?
CPLANE.ai has partnered with a new company, Collaborative Systems Integration (CSI), in Austin, Texas, founded by Don Bartusiak. We are working to help process manufacturers with this shift to open architecture. We have launched a new initiative that we’re calling “pilot in a box” and we’re working with our first customers now. This pilot comes with:
- A functional control system built on open principles for hands-on training experimentation which is a critical first step
- Step-by-step training at all levels to ease the organizational change
- Technical support to maintain and evolve with new capabilities
The interest we’re seeing is around supporting open ICS systems and overall digital transformation initiatives. The transition to open control systems has already begun, so we are helping industrial manufacturers get started on that journey.