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Up to the present day, IT and OT often still represent separate areas: While information technology is responsible for data systems, operational technology encompasses the hardware and software for monitoring and controlling systems in the manufacturing and process industry. With the advent of Industry 4.0, however, the OT world has already increasingly grown together with the IT world in recent years - and in the meantime more and more factors are ensuring a considerable acceleration of this process. Digitalisation, cloud and edge technologies, artificial intelligence and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) are influencing operational technology at a rapidly growing pace. "By 2025, there will be at least 40 billion IoT devices in use," estimates Andreas Hoffmann, Vice President Business Unit Automation at Weidmüller Interface.

Powerful edge devices can secure competitive advantages

Of course, this development is not taking place without reason. The networking and digitalisation of processes right to the edge of the network, the edge area, offer companies competitive advantages: transparent and up-to-date information, a high degree of flexibility in processes, the ability to make forward-looking decisions and thus save time and money - and last but not least, increased process quality.

Manufacturer-specific solutions act as a stumbling block

According to experts, this will not only lead to an exponential growth in data volume, but will also shift previously centralised IT functionalities and decision-making processes to the decentralised edge components. This in turn requires the digital networking of a wide variety of systems and solutions. What sounds advantageous in theory is also advantageous in practice - but there are still problems with implementation. Many of the advantages that an integrated smart factory could offer in terms of flexibility, cost and energy efficiency cannot be exploited due to proprietary automation systems. What is a prerequisite for a successful IT solution on the market today, namely problem-free compatibility with third-party systems, is still far from standard in OT: incompatibilities of manufacturer-specific solutions and expensive maintenance and retrofitting of the systems are often the result for users. In addition, many companies have had to realise in recent months that a manufacturer-specific solution offers little opportunity to simply switch to another component manufacturer in the event of disruptions in the global supply chain.

Communication between OT and IT on one device

"The closer the IT and OT worlds merge, the greater the users' desire to break through this dependency therefore becomes," says Andreas Hoffmann, summarising customer requirements. "And with u-OS, Weidmüller now offers users a software platform for IIoT and automation that is open, flexible and independent." The stability of automation solutions with the possibilities of the IIoT is to be united by u-OS on just one device, thus offering automation engineers and IT programmers an open and flexible solution that allows the digital networking of a wide variety of systems in a simple manner.

Customisation through apps

Although there are already approaches to comprehensive automation platforms, according to Weidmüller, the user must also orientate himself to the specifications of the respective provider - integrating solutions from third-party providers is often only possible with great effort. For this reason, u-OS relies on the use of open, established standards such as Linux, container technology or OPC UA and, in addition to Weidmüller solutions, also enables the simple integration of third-party apps. This makes the user independent and future-proof, as it enables them to access third-party providers who also offer automation platforms or apps.

"Everything can - nothing must"

With u-OS, Weidmüller is creating something like a universal communicator, connecting Industrial IoT and automation, partners with their users, the cloud with data and industrial ecosystems with each other. Users who rely on open source automation instead of proprietary systems should benefit from this in several ways. Thanks to open, digital networking, they are more productive, more flexible and more efficient. "And this is also reflected in operating costs and ultimately competitiveness," says Vice President Business Unit Automation Andreas Hoffmann. "That's why the new u-OS operating system will be the basis for all of Weidmüller's IoT and automation components in the future. Every device is equipped with it and opens up easy access to the IT and OT world. The expandability allows our customers and their customers to put together their system individually and web-based. Everything can - nothing has to."