OPC-UA and RFID Combine to Enhance Visibility and Improve Efficiency

By Michael LaGrega, RFID and Code Reading Systems Engineer, Siemens

Radio frequency identification is becoming increasingly common in industrial environments as companies strive to better understand and inform their processes.  It’s also a key element in the Internet of Things (IoT) movement, where RFID’s data collection capabilities provide valuable information for enterprise operations. Automatic identification via RFID will continue to make a return on its investment.

Market analysts at Technavio predict that the global (RFID) market will see an 11% compound annual growth rate through 2020, led by the industrial market, which accounts for nearly 40% of international consumption. One reason for RFID’s success is that installations are based on standards that make it simpler for companies to get projects up and running quickly and effectively.

OPC-UA is the specification that companies can use to help achieve these goals by optimizing their infrastructure and maximizing its security. To this end, the OPC-UA AutoID Companion Specification was developed to help designers easily integrate RFID devices into the multi-path network.

The OPC-Unified Architecture builds upon the time-tested mechanics of the OLE for Process Control (OPC) specification. While OPC-UA incorporates all features of OPC classic specifications like OPC Data Access (DA), Alarms and Events (A&E) and Historical Data Access (HDA), it also defines platform independent and secure communication mechanisms.   This includes an extensible, object-oriented framework at the field device level which abstracts the communications layer.   OPC-UA is directly integrated into the communication interfaces of automation equipment for configuration, diagnostics, maintenance, and of course, online data exchange.

OPC-UA’s benefits continue through all stages of the project. In the concept phase, system designers have plenty of flexibility in their choice of architecture. Windows PC, Linux, Apple, and Android platforms can all participate among the community of OPC-UA devices.  Real time OPC-UA client applications running on this wide range of devices and their associated real-time apps can satisfy a wide range of applications and users.

Starting out with a common, well-supported communications interface, OPC-UA provides companies with an effective path for system expansion, including adding new devices.   This allows those organizations to maintain their software investments as long as possible. They can invest in hardware and software, knowing that it will have support from vendors well into the future.

The AutoID companion to the OPC-UA specification now offers system designers a common, feature-rich RFID programming interface to take advantage of.    Building onto the OPC-UA base class library, the AutoID companion specification exposes an RFID-specific interface which can be leveraged to create advanced RFID solutions.   RFID interface object categories include device configuration & status, inventory scan control, EPC-supported KillTag/LockTag commands, etc.

Scalable application logic running on the user’s choice of platforms utilizes the AutoID OPC-UA services desired.   A lighter (in performance-related resources) mobile app may only want to monitor system status and perhaps some real-time RFID data, while a larger computing server may be analyzing the data in real-time or involved with some other similar resource intensive task.   The point is that the user decides what platform they want, based tightly on their needs.   Chances are, OPC-UA connectivity is available.  The instant availability of readers’ RFID OPC-UA methods and variables makes monitoring and interacting with them quite easy.  OPC-UA itself provides the object discovery mechanism which helps make this possible.

A simple technical demonstration can be achieved by connecting up an OPC-UA-capable RFID reader to the free-of-charge Unified Automation UA-Expert client application tool.   With a few clicks and entries into the hierarchical tree, the user can be fully controlling the reader and seeing RFID data.

Organizations are insured scalability of their systems knowing that it’s easy to upgrade or add modules that utilize OPC-UA. As systems grow, data from multiple sources can be integrated, giving operators and managers more insight into plant operations.  For instance, a single Siemens’ UHF reader can support up to five clients, from mobile on up to mainframe.  To secure all of that, OPC-UA provides a built-in certificate-based security infrastructure with tight mechanism ensuring protection of devices from breach.

All these features combine to help companies link equipment throughout their enterprise sites to the Internet.  Standards are the basis for IoT success, since common hardware and software platforms make it simpler to collect information from disparate pieces of equipment scattered around the globe. Standards also make it far easier to share this data so it can be analyzed by those searching for ways to improve productivity and efficiency.

Data gathered by RFID readers can be a critical element in a corporation’s plans to gain increased visibility and understanding of parts, materials and other moveable assets.  All of this valuable information can be integrated more easily when standards like OPC-UA with its AutoID companion are employed. When the standard is then baked into such a multitude of devices, organizations can truly leverage the power of OPC-UA RFID towards their goal of enhancing visibility and improving efficiency.