Open Process Automation Forum Reaches Out

By Harry Forbes

Company and Product News

The Open Process Automation Forum has begun new work on orchestration and a new outreach to end users in the process industries.

Three items of recent news related to the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF):

  1. OPAF has formed an orchestration subcommittee
  2. ExxonMobil has entered into a contract with venture stage firm to research and develop orchestration for open process automation systems
  3.  OPAF is planning a new series of outreach activities for end users of process automation systems, both firms who are OPAF members and (especially) those who are not members of the Forum

Let's look at each of these in more detail:

OPAF Orchestration Effort

OPAF recently formed a subcommittee to focus on the orchestration possibilities of open process automation systems.  The mission of this group is to “define interfaces that enable cross functional workflows and metadata to facilitate automation that achieves ‘systemness’ of the OPAF components”.  Breaking that down, there are a couple of points that should be kept in mind.  One is that the committee is taking a very broad view of the term orchestration.  This involves more than container software orchestration provided by tools like Kubernetes.  The driver for their effort is the tasks identified in developing, deploying, and maintaining an open process automation system.  The term “systemness” is commonly used inside the Forum.  In ARC’s view, process industry end users, who are accustomed to working with a commercial DCS, now note that many of the software tools and workflows associated with proprietary DCS do not have a defined equivalent in automation systems integrated from interoperable subsystems and components.  The OPAF orchestration committee is looking to enable higher levels of automation for these tasks, which should improve the economics and the accuracy of the engineering, operations, and maintenance tasks associated with the lifecycle of these systems.

Open Process Automation Forum

 Another point to keep in mind is that the challenges this group will face are that the de-facto interfaces regarding software and distributed system orchestration are defined by organizations in the IT space, such as the CNCF, the Eclipse Foundation, OpenStack, etc.  Their challenge will be to enable these powerful, but rapidly changing IT tools, to reach into the automation space and also to encompass the very small footprint components that the OPAF envisions for distributed process automation.

ExxonMobil Contract

The second item is a contract announcement by venture stage firm that it will be working with ExxonMobil to develop technologies for orchestration of open process automation systems. Initially starting in a separate laboratory, ARC has learned that eventually this work will be used in the ongoing R&D at ExxonMobil's Spring Texas open automation testbed.  This testbed is the next stage in ExxonMobil's plan to develop and deploy open process automation systems, and ExxonMobil has promised the OPAF membership that they will share the nonproprietary results of the testbed work with the Forum.  In ARC's view, this work is essential, because it has the potential to dramatically improve engineering productivity over the entire system lifecycle as well as improve the accuracy with which important system development, system operation, and maintenance tasks are performed.

OPAF Outreach

Finally, the OPAF has been planning a number of new outreach activities.  These remain in the planning stage right now, but the first outreach will likely be a webinar conducted later this year by the ARC Advisory Group and the Forum.  The webinar will provide briefings on several critical OPAF topics and enable end users to respond through online polling and Q&A.  This webinar will be the initial outreach, but only the first of several activities planned by OPAF.  The overall objective is to engage end user firms from the process industries who do not have the human resources to actively participate in the OPAF, or who have chosen not to do so.  The objective is to educate these end users on what has been going on within OPAF in a way that will respect their limited resources, and also to engage them more deeply as the OPAF begins work on its third specification revision, which is the one OPAF envisions will be sufficiently complete to support the development and certification of compliant products.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly been a disturbance to all types of business activities, in ARC’s view it has not slowed the work of the OPAF.  In fact, it seems that the global corporate prohibitions on business travel have, if anything, improved the rate of progress on the work.  ARC will provide further details on these OPAF activities as they become available during the summer of 2020.

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