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RFID Data in the Cloud

The OPC Unified Architecture and industrial communication form the infrastructure of the digital factory.
By Markus Weinländer
Jan 29, 2017

The integration of different systems into a common IT or automation architecture can become a complicated task, because a variety of different interfaces and protocols exist in practice. RFID readers are no exception. But how must a communication architecture look that networks tens of thousands of devices in the digital factory? Industrial communication and the OPC Unified Architecture are the key elements of the necessary digital infrastructure.

The changes are obvious when taking a closer look at the application scenarios in the digital factory. These use cases can be divided into three areas (see Figure 1). The end-to-end engineering means that the data from the product design can also be utilized for the production engineering—to derive control programs, for instance. This allows different perspectives on a product to be recorded and developed in a standardized data model, which simplifies changes, helps to avoid errors and significantly reduces engineering times, including the time to production launch.

Flexible automation is aiming to resolve the apparent contradiction between flexibility and automation, so that a variety of different products can be produced by the same plant. New production processes, such as 3D printing, belong to this area. Finally, the collection and integration of data throughout the entire product lifecycle make possible new services—for example, for maintenance purposes.

The objective is to create a digital image of all relevant objects—and "relevant" is everything that needs to be tracked, checked, found or monitored—from the simple pallet to the actual product produced by the factory. In the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), ideally all objects with communication capabilities are thus integrated into a network. For this, however, RFID systems are indispensable—they synchronize the digital images in the IT systems with the objects in the factory and warehouse: Not every "thing" will have WLAN or Ethernet, but via RFID, a digital capture with location, time and identity is possible.

Figure 1: Technologies and processes in the digital factory (click on the above image to view a larger version)
The digital factory pushes the vertical (that is, between components on the same level) and horizontal integration (communication between layers) of the communication levels. In the digital factory, the previously rigid cellular organization of a production is thus broken up (for example, through freely moving, autonomous robots). The integration of data as information source for analytical, data-based services then leads to a break-up of the horizontal layers. For example, to gain new insights for predictive maintenance, a high data density is necessary, which starts with the design and engineering, and includes quality data in the production, as well as sensors that—when using a machine—transmit their measured values to the IT systems (the cloud).

The communication infrastructure establishing the basis for the architecture outlined must satisfy a wide range of requirements. On the one hand, characteristics such as the use of open standards, availability, quality of service and, above all, security are demanded, which already distinguish today's Industrial Ethernet networks. On the other hand, the connection to IT systems for data-based services, or for an increased transparency across all levels, is demanded—requiring a link between office and production networks.

Safeguards ensure the functioning in the industrial network, but still permit access to all layers, devices and components. As a network topology, different aggregation stages and the introduction of a factory backbone thus present themselves (see Figure 2 on page 2), which enable fast communication between the devices in the individual cells, as well as the efficient linking of the office network and the various sub-areas.

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