Q&A with Stefan Hoppe, global vice president of OPC Foundation

As the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and the ubiquity of cloud computing are driving disruption at levels never seen before, one of the most critical building blocks manufacturers can leverage to enable digital transformation is the work of OPC Foundation.

The OPC Foundation manages a global organization in which users, vendors and consortia collaborate to create data transfer standards for multi-vendor, multi-platform, secure and reliable interoperability in industrial automation. These standards, such as the flagship OPC Unified Architecture (OPC UA) standard, ensure the open connectivity, interoperability, security and reliability of industrial automation devices and systems.

Microsoft is pleased to maintain a long-standing partnership with OPC Foundation to transform manufacturing through connected solutions, reducing barriers to IIoT adoption and helping to deliver immediate value.

Our work together started in 1994 around the OLE for Process Control specification for Windows, and has since included key initiatives such as our support for platform-neutral OPC UA across IoT offerings, including Azure IoT Suite and Universal Windows Platform, and our recent contribution of a .NET Standard reference stack to the OPC Foundation GitHub open-source.

Today, Industrie 4.0 has reached a tipping point and Microsoft believes that openness and interoperability between hardware, software and services will help manufacturers transform how they operate and create solutions that benefit productivity. As the widely recognized key communication technology for the Industrie 4.0 initiative, OPC UA is critical to this next level of connectivity taking hold in our factories and manufacturing plants.

As we eagerly anticipate the arrival of Hannover Messe 2017, the world’s leading industrial show, we thought it would be a good time to sit down with Stefan Hoppe, global vice president of OPC Foundation, to explore his point of view on what’s new in the world of interoperability in today’s digital age, and what he sees is coming next for the industry.


Please share with us your vision for OPC standards and the role that OPC Foundation is taking to enable digital transformation for manufacturers.

 Stefan: OPC is all about industrial interoperability. In simple terms, it’s a kind of standardized USB connector for software with integrated IT security—which is key in a connected world. In the early days, human beings had to start by learning basic concepts around how a computer works. Now, with OPC UA, we have the technology where devices, machines, and software can expose their capabilities not only in easy-to-understand terms and data, but also in a way to help interpret the meanings of that data. A service-oriented architecture (SoA) approach is not new for IT professionals, but with the help of the OPC UA interoperability framework, this approach can now be applied down into the smallest devices and machines. The benefit is that SoAs will be easier to understand, which will reduce engineering efforts.


How is the mission of OPC Foundation evolving alongside digital enablers like cloud, artificial intelligence, and machine learning? What recent progress have you seen as Industrie 4.0 captures mindshare across the manufacturing world?

Stefan: The industrial world is different than the consumer world. In the industrial world, it could take up to 10 years to (hopefully) get attention for and adoption of new standards. But once adoption has reached this point, the ubiquity of it can stay for 20+ years. Major IT companies like SAP (with a focus on ERP and MES) and Microsoft (with a focus on cloud, artificial intelligence and machine learning) have recognized early on the potential of OPC UA. And because OPC UA is now mandatory to get anything labelled as “Industrie4.0 Basic,” other IT companies will soon follow.


From your perspective, how has the Microsoft-OPC Foundation partnership helped to advance digital transformation for manufacturers?

Stefan: Significantly! One example is that manufacturers want to have secure and vendor-independent connection standards. OPC UA security capabilities have been proven by security experts from the German Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) and the Microsoft Cloud Germany provides a differentiated approach to Microsoft Cloud services already available across Europe. This creates increased opportunities for innovation and economic growth for highly regulated partners and customers in Germany, the European Union, and the European Free Trade Association.


What has surprised you the most over the last year in terms of how the industry has grown and changed?

Stefan: I have seen real change and progress. Companies are choosing Microsoft mainly because of the company’s commitment to OPC UA. This underscores the progress we have made together in the industry. We also know that the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association (VDMA), Europe’s biggest machine builder union with focus on 38 vertical markets and 3,500 member companies, has announced that they will create a step-by-step OPC UA-based information model for each vertical industry they support. Wow! This is huge progress. Yes, it will take some time to see this all come to fruition, but what is exciting is that these solutions can immediately be directly connected, not only to cloud solutions like Microsoft Azure, but also securely connected horizontally with each other.


As new opportunities become available for manufacturers to connect more and more devices, assets and infrastructures, what big changes do you see in the next 5-10 years in terms of how industrial interoperability will advance?

Stefan: The first step will be to get more and more information models developed for vertical markets. Vendors will come together to prioritize and agree on standards, which will then need to be tested and certified. We will also see a trend of SoA: Not bits and bytes, but services that have full meta data (and meaning) will be key.

Hard real-time, which is OPC UA over a real-time sub bus, will be available in 4-8 years. This will not replace fieldbus systems, but will offer capabilities to calculate things like round trips for service calls (for example, call a camera, take a picture, calculate analytics, provide results). For wired solutions, the IEEE standard Time Sensitive Network (TSN) is the most promising key technology; for wireless, it will be 5G. And because machines can talk to other machines directly via OPC UA, in the future bots will be able find services on OPC UA marketplaces, connect to them, buy services, and much more!


Are you hearing that security across industrial environments continues to be a concern among organizations? How do you address these concerns?

Stefan: OPC UA’s security has been analyzed by the German BSI at the spec and source code level and we received very positive feedback overall. The OPC Foundation also has a security task force that can react extremely quickly to any immediate needs.


What is the one of the most impactful OPC UA projects you’ve seen?

Stefan. For me personally, the most thrilling projects are always done by the visionary people believing in the technology and trusting its value. I think the first application was done by Areva, connecting their offshore wind turbines controlled by Windows CE 6.0 early in 2008-2009 via OPC UA. Or the worldwide water treatment projects in Singapore, Orlando and Germany that have a huge number of distributed devices connected as part of an intelligent network of intelligent systems. Not to mention the super large volumes where ICONICS connected 1.5 million data points via OPC to the SCADA level. The list goes on with smart meter projects delivering data into Microsoft SQL Server in virtual environments in 2013.


What advice do you have for manufacturers that have not yet fully embraced IIoT?

Stefan: You really need to start now to embrace IIoT and digitize your operations. Incorporating standards and interoperability will make your life, and the operations of your factory, much easier. Knowing that you have secure connectivity will free up your time to plan how to make the best strategic use of your new services; not use them just to collect data.


The highly anticipated Hannover Messe 2017 is right around the corner. Can you give us a preview of what OPC Foundation will be showcasing at the event?

Stefan: As we do every year, we are looking forward to participating in Hannover Messe 2017! We will host our main booth in Hall 9, A11, in cooperation with 12 partners (like Siemens, C-Labs, Honeywell and others) showing their innovations. We will have an extended adoption wall showing about 50 devices from different vendors and products from various markets. We may even see an industrial camera streaming live data via OPC UA.

We are also pleased to have a pod at the Microsoft booth in Hall 7, where we will demonstrate how OPC UA brings to life the vision of the intelligent factory, allowing manufacturers to extend digital business scenarios by leveraging existing investments, creating new efficiencies and new revenue sources, and enabling the innovation needed for a truly connected business. Be sure to stop by these locations to experience first-hand how OPC UA can fuel a breakthrough in your own digital transformation!


Join Microsoft at Hannover Messe 2017, April 24-28, Hannover, Germany. Go here to learn more.