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Microservice-Oriented Architecture – Bridging Software and Customer Benefits

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IoT Use Case Podcast #116 - WAGO, Portainer, Softing, Actemium

Special podcast episode @ SPS 2023! The 116th episode of the IoT Use Case Podcast was recorded live at the SPS trade fair in Nuremberg. Madeleine Mickeleit welcomes three WAGO partners on stage:

  • Tobias Mühlnikel, CTO and CPO of the Edge Business Unit at Portainer.io
  • Christopher Anhalt, Head of Product Marketing at Softing Industrial Automation GmbH
  • Jürgen Kasperek, Head of the Nuremberg Business Unit at Actemium (part of the VINCI Energies Group)

Podcast episode summary

The episode is about the importance of integration and scalability of IoT solutions in various industries, especially in the manufacturing and automotive industries. A key focus is on the need to avoid getting entangled in an ecosystem, but rather to maintain independence and flexibility in choosing technology providers and solutions. WAGO partners Portainer, Actemium and Softing highlighted how collaborations help to develop comprehensive and specialized solutions for specific industry requirements in order to implement flexible and scalable solutions that enable efficient production control and cost reduction:

Tobias Mühlnikel talks about his work at Portainer, a platform for the management of software containers, which is becoming increasingly important in automation technology. He emphasizes the importance of holistic, dynamic solutions and highlights how Portainer helps in accessing and making data available from various sources.

Christopher Anhalt talks about industrial communication and explains how Softing is helping to make data from controllers, devices, sensors and actuators available to the IT world by developing and marketing standard products for IT/OT integration.

Jürgen from Actemium, part of the VINCI Group, explains how his company offers innovative industrial solutions for electrical engineering, measurement and control technology and automation technology. Actemium sees itself as a strategic partner for customers in areas such as energy technology, automation and digitalization in production.

The three guests discuss use cases in the areas of smart manufacturing, device management and administration, data integration in the automotive sector and container-based software development. For example, it is about acquiring data from machines using products such as those from Softing, which are supplied as containers. These can run on hardware such as WAGO’s and then be transferred to the cloud or to MES/SCADA systems. The management of these software components to keep them up to date and the initial roll-out is a central aspect of this use case.

The 116th IoT Use Case podcast episode highlights the importance of strong partnerships and networks in the IoT industry using WAGO as an example.

Podcast interview

We are here live at the SPS in Nuremberg at the WAGO booth. Of course, I would like to welcome everyone who is standing in front of us right now. Great to have you with us today. We welcome Tobias, Jürgen and Christopher to the discussion today.

Tobias, what are your highlights of the SPS?

Tobias

I’ve just come from one of our partners, 40Factory. They are a provider of end-to-end machine connectivity and machine analytics solutions. It’s fascinating to see how a relatively young company is still very dynamic and really motivated and demonstrates its solutions. The topic of holistic solutions is of course very, very important to present. They also have a very interesting marketing strategy to show: they use their solutions to mix cocktails at the trade fair.

Oh, very nice. We need to take another look at that. Jürgen, how is it for you? What is your highlight for today?

Jürgen

My highlight today is once again seeing a fully attended SPS trade fair and having lots of interesting discussions and meeting familiar faces from the automation network. All of this in one day is very fascinating.

Christopher, what are your highlights?

Christopher

I have had little time to look around the trade fair in detail so far. It is difficult for me to single out one particular highlight. One positive thing I noticed in the first day and a half was that the discussions focused much more quickly on innovative solutions and how these can now be implemented and integrated into the factories.

My personal highlight is that more and more companies are really talking about use cases. I see this with many automation companies and manufacturers. Becoming more concrete in the area of IoT is great. I would say let’s start with the session. What are you actually doing? Can you tell us a bit about Actemium? I know your brand, I know roughly what you do in the field of IT services and also consulting. What are you doing in the area of IoT?

Jürgen

As Actemium, we are part of the VINCI Group and stand for innovative solutions for industry in the fields of electrical engineering, measurement and control technology, automation technology, process control technology, energy technology and plant engineering. Here in Nuremberg, we see ourselves as a strategic partner for our customers in the fields of energy technology, automation and digitalization in production. Our main areas of focus are the electrotechnical renewal of machines and systems and, accordingly, OT/IT integration with the emphasis on ensuring end-to-end production IT for our customers. We use products from WAGO, among others, as well as from Softing and Portainer.

Do you actually know Portainer and Softing through the WAGO network or did you already know each other before?

Jürgen

I already knew Softing before, Portainer via the WAGO network.

Very briefly on Softing. What is your core business and how do you work together?

Jürgen

Softing AG is a classic German medium-sized company with 400 employees and headquarters in Habermünchen. I work for Softing Industrial Automation GmbH, which, as the name suggests, specializes in industrial communication. We develop and market standard products that are used in particular for IT/OT integration and can provide data for the IT world from control systems, devices, sensors and actuators.

This means that we essentially have partners here who are very heavily focused on software. You do the IT/OT data integration, especially the data acquisition. Tobias, what are you doing?

Tobias

It’s getting software-heavy again. Portainer itself is an application management software, a platform for managing software containers. Originally an IT discipline, it is becoming increasingly widespread in OT, i.e. automation technology. We enable simple and scalable yet IT-secure management of applications that are containerized, such as Softing’s products.

Very nice. Let’s translate this a little into practice. I also always like to talk about specific use cases in the podcast. Tobias, I’ll stick with you for a moment. You have quite an automotive background. You are an expert in many different areas, but can you give us a little insight into the customers you have at Portainer? What kind of projects do you have in these areas?

Tobias

Gladly. So in principle, container technology is industry-independent. Nevertheless, we are seeing a lot of interest in the automotive, smart manufacturing and logistics sectors, as well as the traditional oil and gas sector, but also smart buildings and, nowadays, medtech and the semiconductor industry. Even if it almost sounds as if we are targeting as many areas and industries as possible, the challenges are usually similar. It is often a matter of extracting data from data sources, transferring it and making it available to the end user. This always requires software components that need to be properly managed and kept up to date.

If we stay on the subject of the business case, for example in the automotive sector: Jürgen, you are heavily involved in the individual business cases of your customers. Could we talk about the business use cases, especially in the automotive sector?

Tobias

One clear strategic reason is often the current popularity and importance of cloud projects. However, many large customers, including medium-sized customers, also see it as strategically important that they do not see themselves in a kind of ecosystem, that they are not trapped by classic American cloud manufacturers, but that they maintain their independence and prefer to rely on the standardization of protocols and technology. Translation: It’s a business case because it reduces dependency on suppliers, allowing for the selection of other suppliers and technology providers. There is also the whole issue of software management. Currently a very manual process, especially in automation technology. You also see a lot of customers going from device to device with USB sticks. This is also a classic business case, because you can save on personnel costs if you automate manual processes.

I would like to ask about this in more detail in a minute. Jürgen, you are now also working with a wide variety of customers. What business use cases do your customers implement?

Jürgen

The use cases are quite different. We are active in both the manufacturing industry and the process industry. If I look at the manufacturing industry now, the top use cases are generally related to smart processes, smart maintenance and smart energy. It starts with the acquisition of operating data and fault causes in order to be able to analyze the causes of faults accordingly. This extends towards machine data acquisition and predictive maintenance. It then progresses towards process data acquisition, process monitoring, and also towards predictive quality. Another topic that has become increasingly important in recent years is the acquisition of energy data. Essentially, it is about acquiring data, creating transparency on the shopfloor in order to optimize production and ensure a certain level of traceability. Ultimately, it is also about being able to improve production planning and having flexibility. These are the use cases. What we often see in the digitalization of production and is underestimated by many. We work for small and medium-sized companies as well as large corporations. They have several sites and a large number of plants within the respective factories. In the digitalization project, we are talking about several hundred, even several thousand machines that need to be connected. The topic of scalable solutions is extremely important, as is a certain degree of standardization so that certain applications from site A are also available in site B. On the one hand, it enables efficient operation, but on the other hand it also allows a certain degree of comparability. These are actually the topics that are very much in demand.

Yes, absolutely. I can also confirm this in our network. We once had an appointment with Schaeffler specifically about this. Several thousand euros have to be spent on machine connectivity for one machine, in a wide variety of forms. There is simply an incredible amount of money behind it.

Jürgen

That is precisely what this is all about. Connecting a machine is not a big issue. Connecting several hundred or several thousand machines is. These must be connected and maintained, updated and serviced over a typical production lifespan of seven to fourteen years. I need efficient solutions for operations. These are the real cost drivers, also over the life cycle of the applications.

Christopher

The most typical concrete use cases we see today are OEE and MES. Related to CNC machines, perhaps tooling and predictive maintenance. You said that establishing connectivity is expensive. This is one of the shifts towards the IoT solution, that customers want to install connectivity once and then reuse it for a whole range of different use cases that run in parallel and evolve over the years. Traditionally, it involved a one-time installation without further adjustments. IoT means multiple applications, scalability across locations and easy changeability over the lifetime.

Before I go into the topic of scalability again, a quick question first. We are now sitting here with three WAGO partners: How do you actually work together? Who takes on which role in the WAGO partnership? Can you explain that a little bit?

Jürgen

We always focus on the best solution for our customers. In order to plan end-to-end solutions, we naturally need a corresponding pool of solution elements that we can use for our projects. It is also important to have a broad portfolio that you can fall back on and that has proven itself in practice. We also appreciate the cooperation with the WAGO IoT partners in order to have possibilities and flexibility for our customer projects and to use these solutions in project planning.

Do you both work together directly? What role do you take on, for example?

Christopher

Actemium and Softing have been working together, historically even for some time, but not triggered or now here as part of the WAGO partnership. We haven’t been a WAGO IoT partner for very long, just a few months. In this respect, I cannot talk about a large number of completed projects. The business case is simply that our software modules can be used on WAGO hardware, especially the WAGO platform. This is the basis for our work in the WAGO partner network. Independently of this, we also had a partnership between Portainer and Softing a little earlier.

Tobias

Exactly, we have an official partnership between Softing and Portainer. As part of the WAGO partnership, we were in a rather luxurious position in this case because WAGO decided to use this container technology for some of its products and to use our product internally. It was a classic market-pull strategy and more or less, they approached us, which led to a very pleasant initiation of partnership.

I don’t know how deeply everyone here is into Docker containers. Perhaps we can take a simple example. For example, I have a sensor, WAGO hardware, a certain IT/OT component and software. How does it all work together in practice? What are you actually doing now?

Tobias

It is usually the case that the software manufacturer starts or has started in the past to provide its software as a container, such as Softing, for example, but also various other software companies. They want to develop software as quickly as possible, independently of the hardware, and then roll it out or hand it over to end customers or their partners. Several software components are required for a use case, for a solution. How everything works together, for example in the case of the Smart Manufacturing Use Case, is that you naturally still need the hardware. It’s about acquiring data and receiving it from the machines. For example, products from Softing are used, which are supplied as containers. These can run on the hardware, for example from the company WAGO. These can then be transferred further, for example to the cloud or to the MES/SCADA system. Managing these software components, keeping them up to date, as well as the initial deployment, is essentially our core discipline: making the whole process as simple as possible and without the need for IT knowledge.

So you could say that your technological use case is a kind of device management or device administration, but not the device itself, but the software that runs on the device. That means you manage the software on the WAGO device? Can you put it that way?

Tobias

For instance. On the WAGO devices in the control cabinet, on bare-metal servers, on virtual machines. That’s just important. To be honest, nobody would simply buy Portainer per se without the use case, because the user wants to realize some kind of project and Portainer is then virtually an infrastructure.

How much time and money do customers lose today without you? What are the expenses there that are not scalable today?

Christopher

It’s potentially a big issue because scalability can mean many things. I think the first thing I would like to mention is the fact that IoT generally means having a central platform, be it cloud-based or self-hosted. You want to use applications across multiple locations and need centralized management at the edge level. This is one of the aspects of scalability. It can also be a location where the applications simply become complex and a large number of Docker containers need to be used. Right down to the aspect that you only have one management tool if you want to combine containers from different manufacturers at edge level. Which is a benefit from the end customer’s point of view. Scalability has many aspects.

Jürgen, what does scalability mean for Actemium in the projects? What is most important to your customers?

Jürgen

There are a lot of machines that need to be connected, and I need to be able to connect them quickly. It’s also a big issue that I can also roll out an update quickly and then have a certain degree of comparability and standardization. A flexible production IT architecture is extremely important these days. Everyone remembers the automation pyramid from the past. That has changed a lot. There are now many more IT systems in production that need the data. I need a continuous data flow in the systems, a certain degree of flexibility, scalability and the whole thing should also be maintainable over the entire life cycle. Then ideas come in on how to optimize something in the applications and changes should be able to be rolled out quickly. Accordingly, scalability and flexibility are very important. I need a production IT architecture where I can also implement these use cases flexibly.

This means keeping the devices up to date. This means that somewhere there are old software versions running on the devices that are now installed manually, let’s say. Is this now also being implemented on a cloud basis, or what exactly do you mean by that?

Jürgen

We focus on the end-to-end solution. This means the connection between the machine and the data from the machines to the respective user, i.e. the IT system. If I now take the simple example of recording process data for a process, the need to record additional data in the process may change if a certain level of importance is identified. I have to update the application to integrate the additional data points. For the roll-out, I need complete consistency from the machine, typically to a middleware and ultimately the connection to the respective IT system. Middleware solutions or platform solutions have now proven themselves in architecture. The topic of middleware solutions in particular, which act as a data bridge between OT and IT, is one where there will be a great deal of flexibility in the future. IT systems will increase dramatically, be it an ERP system, an MES system, BI systems, data lakes and so on. They all have a great need for data that has to be provided.

Tobias, another question for you. What does scalability mean to you? How much time and money do customers lose today without you? How do customers do this today without your software? How much manual work is involved?

Tobias

Your individual applications have to be kept up to date manually using established processes, which can be very time-consuming. When we talk about devices and PCs, they must also be configured. There are also good options that we have implemented together with our partner WAGO, for example, be it a firmware update process or the automatic configuration and protection of devices. This all has to be done manually. In other words, I buy devices. I have to configure each one individually. That is of course the challenge. Firstly, the time required and then also the human component, because people also make mistakes, especially with recurring tasks.

You do the end-to-end integration. When a customer from the WAGO partner network approaches you, how exactly do you implement this with your solutions? What do you offer in the end?

Jürgen

We see ourselves as a strategic partner. When I look at the digitalization of production, I ask myself where the respective customer stands: How advanced is it in terms of digitalization? Some are already very advanced, others less so. Where do they want to go? We then consider which use cases are relevant, what the return on investment of these use cases is, what they would like to implement in the future, what a flexible production IT architecture looks like and which solution elements are suitable for this in order to be future-proof, flexible and scalable. We select and advise our customers according to these considerations and recommend suitable products.

When do you bring Softing on board?

Jürgen

If we realize that Softing would be the ideal solution for the project planning of the overall solution.

Okay, so what exactly does it look like? Can you describe it?

Christopher

The ideal solution for accessing machine data and device data. Our new, containerized software modules are particularly important in the context of this partnership. These are usually brownfield projects with old Siemens controllers that do not support OPC UA. The question is how to access the data and make it available via protocols that are understood by the IT world, such as OPC UA or MQTT. The same applies to CNC machines from Siemens, Sinumerik 840D, FANUC. For this purpose, we offer software modules that manage these tasks in a robust and scalable manner.

Do you have specific data or data types that are relevant? Is this always standardized data? Is it also data from an old S7 or S5 controller? What kind of data do you connect there?

Christopher

Now that’s a very good question, and I could almost give a lecture on it in its own right. One of the challenges is that it is not usually standardized. Controls are freely programmable. In this respect, the data involved is project-specific or customer-specific. How do you deal with semantics? How can you bypass so-called companion specs? We also deal with this topic, but it goes beyond the scope of this article. That would be a standardization of access to machine data.

There is an episode with Stefan Hoppe from the OPC Foundation. Feel free to listen to that again. It’s really exciting to see what you can do in the area of standardization and what the individual specifications can make possible. In the end, you can connect any type of data, depending on the customer case.

Christopher

Exactly. We like to call this the south side. Whatever is available there, we can connect. Either on the basis of the standard protocol or, if we are talking about OPC UA, by using a companion specification, a mapping in an information model, in order to then represent standardized information on the basis of OPC UA.

What does it look like if you now have WAGO hardware in between? What kind of data is this typically? Does that change anything?

Christopher

No, nothing at all. WAGO is simply the infrastructure on which we run. Yes, there are different platforms, it is admittedly largely completely technologically independent. Of course, we also run on other hardware. The question of data types is decoupled from the question of the hardware we are running on.

Jürgen

It is particularly important for brownfield applications to have a certain flexibility with drivers in order to be able to connect different controllers. The OPC UA standard has also become established for new systems in the southbound area. Another major issue with existing systems is the “never touch a running system” principle, especially if you need to access old control systems but still require data. A commonly used solution for scalable approaches is parallel data acquisition in the control cabinet. For example, we often use the WAGO CC100 controller to collect the data and then provide it to a middleware via OPC UA.

Tobias, could you tell us a bit more about the data or data types you work with? Do you access it directly, or how does your technology work in terms of data types?

Tobias

Containers can be Softing products, for example. As with the shipping company, as with the shipping containers, they are a black box for us. In other words, we don’t know what’s in them, but we can still manage them. This means that we are not “interested” in the data types or the protocols, but this is managed by the final applications. We are agnostic in this respect and our customers naturally that too. We do not trap them in any ecosystem. We enable them to select the best solution from the various manufacturers and then either integrate it themselves, if they have this expertise, or rely on system integrators such as Actemium.

Christopher

In fact, this is not about the payload, but about a different issue when we talk about data, especially configuration data. That is another level. You have recently integrated the option of configuration management into your products. It is now important for us to develop a solution for this.

Tobias

That’s right. It’s all about the configuration management that Christopher mentioned. You can think of it like this: You can roll out applications, and that works well, for example with machine connectivity. But it is a misconception to think that you can simply roll out an application to 100 devices and then everything will work, because every machine is different and every machine requires a specific configuration. And you don’t want to have to go from machine to machine to configure each individual application.

Very nice. We are here at the SPS trade fair, we have many exhibitors, each with their own USP or unique selling point. Tobias, what makes Portainer so special now that others might not be able to do? What is it?

Tobias

Also the openness, which generally suits WAGO’s partner network. We are an open platform. We are not like large hardware manufacturers, especially a closed ecosystem. Our customers appreciate that. We have over 650,000 active users and several billion downloads. Customers from different industries appreciate the freedom to choose for themselves.

Yes, just a quick question: What does download mean in your environment? Where is it available? GitHub?

Tobias

A download is simply obtaining the software from the Internet. If we were being technical now, it would be Docker Hub, for example, because it is a container. But it is almost similar to look at.

Okay, the OT engineers and IT people who end up using your software are familiar with it. What makes Softing so special?

Christopher

I think it’s a combination of factors. We are not a startup. We have been working in automation for over 40 years. We have robust, well-engineered products. Unlike some of our competitors, we are not owned by any IoT application or platform. This means that we are the small independent company that is actually an ideal partner for all those competing with other IoT platforms or applications. We were one of the first, if not the first, to focus on containerization for machine connectivity. If I remember correctly, it was at SPS 2018 where we showed for the first time how this can work.

Very nice. Jürgen, what makes you so special at Actemium?

Jürgen

One of our strengths is that we have a very good network as a system integrator. We consist of 400 business units. We have over 22,000 employees and are active in over 40 countries. This means that we can usually always find a specialist or someone who has worked on a topic before, even for specialized topics. This also allows us to scale quickly. We focus on end-to-end solutions that benefit the customer over the entire life cycle. From consulting to planning and, of course, realization, which is the main part, to maintenance and service of the respective applications.

Thank you very much for the interview today. We have provided a brief insight into the technology, but could of course go into much more detail. Each of you could probably fill your own episode, which is of course a bit of a challenge. Nevertheless, the focus today is also on the partnership with WAGO and your cooperation there. I look forward to the subsequent discussions, perhaps even here on site.

I am curious to see which use cases customers or users will implement there. Thanks again to Tobias, Christopher and Jürgen for today’s talk. I was very pleased. I will link your LinkedIn profiles in the show notes so that you can continue reading there. Thank you very much for the interesting interview. I think you’ll be here for a moment. So, thank you very much for this great podcast episode.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Questions? - Ing. Madeleine Mickeleit

Ing. Madeleine Mickeleit

Host & General Manager
IoT Use Case Podcast