Open communication

Open communication

by 4. September 2017

Smoke signals and carrier pigeons

For us humans, language forms the basis for all communication. Of course, language wasn’t invented by human beings overnight. It started off as a collection of gestures and sounds, which only evolved into a comprehensive system of vocal expression over thousands of years. Language was initially designed purely to enable people to communicate with one another directly. It only worked over a maximum distance of a few yards. You had to be within hearing distance to understand what the other person was saying. This naturally meant that anyone else within hearing distance could understand it too. Those were the days when open communication was perfectly normal.

It wasn’t until much later that we humans developed technologies for sharing information over long distances. They included drums, smoke signals and carrier pigeons – as well as Morse code and radio. Today, the Internet is our number one form of communication and, linked to it, social media. We’ve been using the latter for well over ten years now. We all resort to several of these services in the meantime, so that we can communicate with anyone, anytime, anywhere. In short, communication is what all of us do all of the time.

Machines that learn our language

Our society has set itself the objective of expanding and strengthening networks not just between people but also between machines as well as between people and machines. Networking simultaneously plays a crucial role in industry. First, machinery and equipment need to communicate along the entire value chain – what we refer to as horizontal integration. Second, they need to be directly interconnected with the office and finance worlds – the term here is vertical integration.

Human-machine network

Human-machine network

It is becoming increasingly apparent that [to-link url=””]Industry 4.0 (in German)[/to-link] will fundamentally change our economic system and its value chains, far beyond simply optimizing local technologies.

Yet what does this mean for the process industry?

Models simply have limits

Dr. Helget provided the following explanation (with english subtitle) in his keynote speech at the NAMUR Annual General Meeting 2017:

“When data volumes that are continuously increasing are processed in networks that are becoming ever more complex, the automation pyramid we have become so fond of reaches its limits. This should not unsettle us, because it is a model and models simply have limits or a limited useful life. If we are going to put Industry 4.0 into practice in the process industry, we definitely need open, flexible and modular structures but without diminishing safety in any way.”, says Dr. Helget.

ExxonMobil has a vision

Both NAMUR and ExxonMobil demonstrated last year how this challenge can be addressed systematically. ExxonMobil presented its vision of a fully open automation concept called Open System Architecture that will allow software and hardware from different manufacturers to coexist and interact – “plug and play”.

ExxonMobil’s vision of open architecture

ExxonMobil’s vision of open architecture

The motivation is to cease operation of proprietary, closed systems. The aim instead is to install multi-vendor automation systems. The future architecture should have the following defining characteristics:

  • Integrate non-proprietary automation hardware
  • Retain application software – simpler to port
  • Reduce automation lifecycle costs
  • Include an adaptive, intrinsic security model
  • Make innovative solutions easy to implement
  • Be open to optimization

The goal: to develop a standard system which is also adopted by other industrial users (not just ExxonMobil).


NAMUR, too, presented a more open automation architecture at its Annual General Meeting, which enables Industry 4.0 solutions for the process industry to be realized efficiently and flexibly. The association is particularly keen for the NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA) to be seen as an adaptation of the conventional automation pyramid. This approach separates the mission critical system from the open IT environment. The core automation is thus kept distinct from monitoring and optimization tasks.

NOA – NAMUR Open Architecture

NOA – NAMUR Open Architecture

NOA – NAMUR Open Architecture 2

NOA – NAMUR Open Architecture 2


The idea is to allow innovative technologies to be utilized quickly and easily in accordance with the trial-and-error principle. Rapid commercial success will be facilitated in this way. The automation pyramid alone imposes too tight a “strait-jacket”. Even simple expansions, for instance to supply the IT system with more data, are virtually impossible to implement today. Such adjustments are unnecessarily complex and hence also time-consuming and very expensive. What’s more, they can be very tedious. Yet in spite of all the openness, availability and security, it’s important not to have any negative impacts on (i.e. interfere with) or endanger the status quo. NOA allows everything to be realized outside of the pyramid for this reason.

And the winner is?

NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA)

In a nutshell: the NAMUR Open Architecture (NOA) provides ways to increase openness outside of the automation pyramid. The core automation, in other words the mission critical system, is not affected. This crucial fact means a realistic chance of implementation – also in the short to medium term. 

ExxonMobil approach

The ExxonMobil approach, by contrast, opens up the entire automation pyramid and does away with the separation based on individual levels. In spite of this, it is still possible to integrate legacy concepts. This opening up will entail a certain amount of time and effort. It will almost certainly take longer to realize than the NOA approach.

Both concepts can entertain legitimate hopes of implementation. They both rely on similar technologies, namely ISISA95, OPC UA, PLCopen and AML.

The automation pyramid – a manifesto which has been guiding us for decades – is starting to be challenged. Both concepts are shaking the foundation of a model we have grown very fond of. Such changes are bound to raise questions in the community.

Which initiative will win the day? Will the two approaches be combined? Or will one be swallowed up by the other? What do you think? We’d like to hear your views. I look forward to reading your opinion. I’d be delighted to discuss the possible alternatives and their implementation with you. Feel free to write us a comment with your thoughts.


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