ExxonMobil to Build Next Generation Multi-vendor Automation Architecture

  • February 16, 2016
  • Feature

By Bill Lydon, Editor

Over the years, automation users have complained about being locked into an industrial automation vendor’s system architecture. ExxonMobil has had enough of proprietary, closed systems and they are leading the charge to build the next generation, multi-vendor automation system. ExxonMobil’s announcement was major news at last week’s 2016 ARC Forum in Orlando, Florida. The Forum’s theme was “Industry in Transition: Navigating the New Age of Innovation.” ExxonMobil has engaged Lockheed Martin to build a multi-vendor interoperable prototype that is a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture, with commercially available software and hardware components. Lockheed Martin has deep experience with these types of systems from its other business and engineering activities.

ExxonMobil is not alone in this quest. Industry 4.0 and Industry 4.0 for Process initiatives in Europe have already adopted some world standards including ISA95, OPC UA and PLCopen with the objective of achieving multi-vendor, open interoperability. These groups would do well to collaborate.

Business Driver

ExxonMobil believes they are competing on a global stage, and to remain competitive over the next several decades, oil and gas, refining and chemical companies must lower capital cost and improve profitability. The idea of simply using state-of-the-art DCS will not provide the automation platform to be competitive in world markets. ExxonMobil representatives express frustration when observing step change improvements in adjacent industries enabled by open technologies. Those adjacent industries have deployed significantly higher function software that have lowered lifecycle cost and delivered higher return on investment. For example, the defense avionics industries have transition from a proprietary stovepipe model to fully open systems architecture.

The explosive growth of technologies driven by the Internet of Things (IoT) including cloud computing, mobile computing, embedded computing, and consumer electronics makes it obvious that the mainstream industrial automation industry can deliver more value with the adoption of an open, multi-vendor platform approach.


ExxonMobil has expressed their vision for an open, standards-based, secure and interoperable control system with the following characteristics:

  • Promotes innovation and value creation
  • Effortlessly integrates best in class components
  • Affords access to leading-edge capability and performance
  • Preserves the asset owners application software
  • Significantly lowers the cost of future replacement
  • Employs an adaptive intrinsic security model

The goal is to develop a commercially available system that will be used by other industrial users, not ExxonMobil only.

ExxonMobil System Vision as presented at the 2016 Annual ARC Industry Forum

The characteristics of this open architecture system include:

  • Portability - Application software will run on multiple platforms.
  • Open Standards - Leveraging publicly available open standards.
  • Modularity - multi-vendor Comp Opponent Interchangeability.
  • Interoperability - Conforming software integrated with minimal effort.

Talk is cheap takes money to buy whiskey!

This effort is so strategically important to ExxonMobil that they have engaged Lockheed Martin as general contractor to develop and build prototype funded through an ExxonMobil R&D program. The plan is to build a system based on these concepts in 2017 and deploy field trials in 2018. The first steps are seeking comments from the Industrial Control Systems industry on open architecture standards in hardware and software pertaining to the execution of the Next Generation Open Automation System as part of this Open System Architecture program. The expectation is that this R&D activity leads to a standards-based, open, secure, and interoperable architecture that is commercially viable and to which multiple companies could supply software and hardware components. Dennis Stevens is the key contact at Lockheed Martin. He can be contacted at [email protected]

.Lockheed Martin has direct experience with the COTS initiatives in the military and aircraft industry which evolved for over 20 years to achieve significantly more powerful, functional, and cost-effective systems by leveraging innovative technologies.

Sacred Cow - DCS & PLC Rack

A major tethering point of existing DCS and PLC systems are proprietary plug-in cards and racks. Today in the industrial automation industry each vendor has their unique form factors for plug-in cards for processors and I/O that communicate over vendor specific and proprietary backplanes. It is not possible to take an I/O card from brand A controller and plug it into brand B controller. In military, telecommunications, computer servers, and other applications that have adopted open architecture standards it is possible to plug-in and operate cards from any manufacturer conforming to the standards.

Open Architecture Standard Building Blocks Exist

The good news is there are open standards that exist in the industrial automation industry that can be leveraged if users demand them. If vendors fully embrace the available standards this would go a long way to achieving ExxonMobil’s vision – a vision that is shared by many users.


OPC UA provides an open-source suite of OPC UA clients and servers that are multiplatform and leverage computer industry communications mechanisms including standard Web Services. https://opcfoundation.org/

Open Controller to Controller Communications

PLCopen OPC UA function blocks enable direct machine to machine communications between multiple vendor controllers to coordinate automation. These new function blocks simplify the integration of production, process control, packaging, and other machines into new efficient system architectures. www.PLCopen.org


The FDT Group AISBL International’s FDT standardizes the communication and configuration interface between all field devices and host systems. http://www.fdtgroup.org/

PLCopen XML Interchange Standard

The PLCopen organization’s XML standard provides an open, non-proprietary, software interface for the interchange of industrial and process control programs between controls, Product Life Cycle Management (PLM), Machine & Process Simulation, CAD, documentation software, and other systems.  www.PLCopen.org

IEC 61131-3 Programming Standard

IEC 61131-3 is a minimum set of basic programming elements, syntactic and semantic rules for the most commonly used industrial and process automation programming languages. This includes the graphical languages Ladder Diagram, Functional Block Diagram, Sequential Function Chart, and the textual languages Instruction List and Structured Text. Vendors and users may also expand or adapt those basic sets using C, C+, Java, and other programming languages. www.PLCopen.org

PLCopen Functions

The PLCopen organization standards and certifications extend functionality within the IEC 61131-3 framework. Extensions include functions for motion control, fluid power, and safety. www.PLCopen.org

Runtime Engines

There are independent software companies that provide integrated development environments and runtime software that can run on virtually any processor from embedded to cloud applications that conform to the IEC 61131-3, PLCopen, and OPC Foundation standards. This is a partial list:


Sercos International trade association announced the Sercos SoftMaster is available under an open-source software license for general use. Using the Sercos III SoftMaster, applications may be implemented with an Ethernet controller eliminating the need for a Sercos III FPGA or an ASIC master component. The Sercos III hardware functions are emulated in host-based driver software. This was demonstrated at the SPS IC Drives show on a standard industrial PC using the tenAsys real-time software. With this implementation, real-time behavior is achieved for a large number of applications. http://www.sercos.org/

So what’s the problem?

There are number standards that exist but they have only been adopted by industrial automation vendors enough to claim a check off on specifications. The major problem is that users have not demanded vendor conformance to the standards to guarantee multi-vendor interoperability.

More subtle is the fact that many vendors have an essentially closed ecosystem of partners that are allowed access to work within their native closed architectures.

The ExxonMobil project also adds the idea of a common hardware platform that enables users to leverage multiple vendor hardware on a common platform, which has been achieved in other industries.

The question is on what dimensions will existing industrial automation vendors compete? Consider the history of the mainframe and minicomputer industry; there were a number of now gone and forgotten companies that believed they had the best closed architecture computers for users.

What are the odds?

The ExxonMobil project is a major undertaking and hopefully other end users will learn about the project and provide input and support.

This will be very interesting to watch…

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