Open standards propel the digital transformation of industrial control

The first products certified for systems management in an open architecture will be ready this year, ushering in a new era of powerful, cost-effective control systems that support sophisticated AI applications.

The data that drives digital transformation needs three things to thrive: computing power, big network bandwidth and, in industrial settings, an open control platform. Only two of those requisites – power and pipes – are readily available. The third could be just around the corner, thanks to recent developments led by a coalition of industrial control system vendors dedicated to enabling an ecosystem of interoperable, standards-based control technologies.

AdobeStock_Engineers in Control Room

Engineers in a control room (photo credit: Adobe Stock)

The first commercialized products certified for systems management in an open system architecture will be rolling out in the second quarter of 2024. The availability of such products would be greatly welcome by companies eager to break free from proprietary systems that create vendor lock-in. It could even unleash a wave of digital transformation across the industrial sector, a timely opportunity in light of sustainability, labor and supply-chain challenges.

The shift to open industrial control systems started in 2016 when the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF), which is part of The Open Group, was formed to create a new generation of interoperable and secure architectures for industrial automation. In 2019, OPAF released the Open Process Automation System (O-PAS) standard version 1.0, which is the technical architecture overview developed to establish a foundation for interoperability. In 2021, version 2.1 of O-PAS became available, addressing configuration portability.

Also in 2021, the Coalition of Open Process Automation (COPA) was formed in an effort to commercialize the standardization efforts of OPAF. While not an offshoot of OPAF, COPA is comprised of many of the OPAF members, including, Collaborative Systems Integration (CSI), Codesys, Phoenix Contact, ASRock Industrial Computer, and others.

“When version 2.1 of the standard was published, which was the first version of the standard that you could actually build an operations control system off, we kept hearing from a lot of users saying, ‘Hey, my management team has totally bought into the benefits of open process automation, so where do we buy one?’,” says Bob Hagenau, CEO of, a platform that integrates IT and OT technologies. “The reality was, there was no place to buy one because open control system, by definition, means that you have multiple vendors that are all contributing different components to this.”

As a result, Hagenau teamed up with CSI founder Don Bartusiak, a former ExxonMobil chief engineer and one of the earliest advocates of the development of open, secure standards for process control architectures. CSI  provides technology and expert consulting services for the design and integration of O-PAS industrial control systems. Together, Hagenau and Bartusiak gathered other technology suppliers to form COPA and collaborate on building the first commercial products based on open process automation.

In 2021, the coalition rolled out COPA QuickStart, a pre-built testbed that includes six-module training program that helps end users understand the technology, process, and skills required to manage open process automation systems. Several major manufacturers currently use QuickStart. Meanwhile, the COPA members have been busy designing, testing and iterating products based on multiple parts of the O-PAS standard—and they recently reached another major milestone.

Introducing DMTF Redfish to industrial applications

In February 2024, COPA, in collaboration with Intel, announced the release of the first open process automation distributed control nodes (DCNs) to pass verification testing for the systems management profile (called OSM-003 profile) of the O-PAS standard.

O-PAS itself is a “standard of standards,” as the group wanted to leverage the open standards already in place. In this portion of the standard, COPA is building on top of the Distributed Management Task Force (DMTF) Redfish standard, which provides a consistent way to manage hardware resources across different vendors and platforms—typically in the cloud—but now adapted and extended to industrial use cases.

“It allows for you to have a vendor-agnostic set of components within your system, but still have visibility to manage across a system of multi-vendor components,” Hagenau explains. “Redfish’s portion of the solution allows for a centralized systems management component to have visibility across the capabilities of the different DCNs, the status of all of those DCNs, and the excess available capacity.”

That central management component is referred to as orchestration, a term well-known within cloud management systems, but new to the industrial control-systems market. In the cloud, orchestration can manage the lifecycle of hardware and software. In an industrial setting, it collects data from the system and the characteristics of the hardware and software, which is used to perform the system functions and dynamically move control applications and content around.

“Let’s say that one device fails. You can take a failover to another device immediately, but you can also start to spin up a device to replace the one that went down. This can all be automated based on the policies of the company,” Hagenau says. Or, if you want to upgrade one of the DCNs, it can be done without taking the system down because things are moved around dynamically. “Zero downtime is critically important, but it also needs to be done with minimal IT skills and a high degree of automation.”

ASRock Industrial iEP-7020E

ASRock Industrial iEP-7020E

Setting a foundation for digital transformation

Two of the benefits of open process automation DCNs are greater computing and lower costs. For example, the February announcement focused on ASRock Industrial, which has achieved DCN verification of two industrial IoT controllers, the iEP-7020E and the iEP-5010G series. These DCNs are designed to automatically discover and track system hardware and software components. They also monitor system readiness and utilization, enable autonomous system operations through intelligent orchestration, and securely conduct remote management.

In addition, these DCNs showcase an unprecedented level of power, cost efficiency, and industrial-grade reliability. For example, according to a COPA press release, ASRock Industrial’s iEP-7020E series, equipped with 13th-Gen Intel Core processors, achieves approximately 30,000 million instructions per second. Priced at less than $2,000, the iEP-7020E DCN is considered to be more affordable than proprietary controllers. These advancements allow the COPA control system to offer high availability through software redundancy, eliminating the need for additional hardware, as well as next-generation advanced control that includes fast-cycle multivariable predictive control (MPC). This paves the way for the integration of artificial intelligence-enabled components in industrial control systems.

Indeed, having this kind of computing ability enables more sophisticated mathematical applications, like MPC, because the computations are performed within the device rather than elsewhere on the network, which introduces latency. “In today’s market, you can really only run those types of applications about every 30 seconds. But we can now run those types of applications every second, which opens up new categories of use cases,” Bartusiak says, noting you could use AI to continuously reoptimize PID controller tuning.

The Open Group’s stamp of approval

So, why is the announcement of the release of the first Open Process Automation DCNs to complete verification testing so important? It’s because verification testing is a precursor to certification by The Open Group, which is expected in the second quarter of 2024. 

“Verification is the technical testing and certification is the end state,” Bartusiak explains. “The remaining work to be done by The Open Group is more along the lines of what the ISO [International Organization for Standardization] does to audit an organization and certify its work processes. But getting over the technical testing is the big burden on the suppliers, so that is the significance of this accomplishment.”

Hear more about open process automation at the Digital Transformation Forum, May 1-2, 2024 in Boston. CSI executives will be presenting a session titled,“The Digital Transformation Foundation Starts with Open Standards.”