Working together to promote OPC UA communication protocol

April 4, 2024
Glenn Anderson of the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and Thorsten Kuehmann of the Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association at VDMA discuss the technology’s benefits.

The plastics industry is undergoing a transformation. Digitalization is finding its way into more and more processes. Established business models are under attack and new players are entering the changing market. In light of this, efficient production is becoming increasingly important. A core element of this is communication between machines in a plant, and the OPC UA communication protocol has established itself as the leading technology. 

At the NPE2024 plastics trade fair, which takes place May 6-10 in Orlando, Fla., visitors from all sectors of the plastics industry will have the opportunity to find out more about this manufacturer-independent machine communication. 

Glenn Anderson, chief operating officer at the Plastics Industry Association (PLASTICS) and Thorsten Kuehmann, managing director of the Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association at VDMA, discussed the show and the benefits of OPC UA. 

This year, the NPE2024 is taking place again for the first time after a six-year COVID break. What are your expectations for this event? What is the significance of the trade show for the American/international plastics industry? 

Glenn Anderson: It has been six years since we held NPE2018, because we had to cancel NPE2021 due to Covid, so we have some catching up to do. In this long time, companies in the plastics industry have continued to innovate. It is quite possible that many of them will present not just one innovation, but several. I know from talking to our members and other exhibitors that they can hardly wait to present their technologies at the NPE2024. We are expecting more than 2,100 exhibitors, 700 of whom will be exhibiting at the NPE for the first time.  

In addition, we are dealing with a changed attendees structure. In view of the changing workforce dynamics, many of the attendees from NPE2018 will no longer attend — mostly for reasons of age. We estimate that over 50 percent of participants will be attending the NPE for the first time. And therefore we must provide content that attracts a newer and younger audience. 

What have you changed? 

Anderson: The most important task for PLASTICS and for NPE2024 is, of course, to ensure that we have qualified buyers, so that exhibitors can not only present their technologies, but ultimately also sell their goods and services. In addition, we are increasingly addressing a younger audience and have therefore added new content to our concept. For example, for the first time there will be over 100 educational events on a wide range of topics. Our aim is to bring the next generation of workers in the plastics industry up to speed so that they are able to pursue a career in the industry. 

PLASTICS and VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery have a common mission at this show: to highlight the benefits of OPC UA for plastics processors. What exactly is OPC UA and why is it so important to promote it? 

Thorsten Kuehmann: OPC UA is a technology that enables machine-to-machine communication and data exchange. It is a language that is actually spoken between machines. The OPC Foundation provides the grammar of this language, while we, the community of machine builders, define the words. Both grammar and words must come together for this communication between machines to work.  

This machine-to-machine communication is completely independent of the manufacturer. It doesn't matter who they are or where they come from. The communication works in the USA, in India, in Europe, in China, simply everywhere. That is our mission. Everyone has to agree on a system. As machine manufacturers, we do this for our customers. They should no longer have to worry about whether they can connect machines to each other or how they have to do it. It simply has to work for them. 

Why is it important for PLASTICS and the VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery to work together on technical guidelines? 

Anderson: I think the most important reason is that PLASTICS and VDMA share many of the same members. And they all serve the global market. Many U.S.-based customers have plants all over the world. They would definitely be affected by what we're trying to do: make it easier for a processor to get meaningful data. It is important that we work together to ensure that the international technical guidelines we develop are accepted and applied worldwide. 

OPC UA should become the global language of production. Does the NPE have an influence beyond the American market? 

Anderson: It certainly has. Over time, NPE has developed into a major international platform. The relocation of the trade fair to Orlando in Florida also contributes to the fact that many Latin Americans visit the trade fair. We are expecting visitors from 110 countries. And we are estimating that around 30 percent of all visitors will come from outside the United States. 

Kuehmann: The increased importance of the NPE is extremely helpful for us. It is exactly the right place to present and publicize OPC UA to a large community. We have representatives from all over the world there. If you have such an international audience in one place, you can address international topics all the better. You can summarize it like this: The international production language meets the international community at a major trade fair like the NPE. 

Your mission is to highlight the benefits of OPC UA for the users, the plastics processing companies. Can you give some practical examples? 

Kuehmann: A manufacturing company that owns several injection molding machines from different manufacturers can operate them uniformly via one control system with an OPC UA interface. This makes the production process more efficient, and the connection of new machines requires significantly less implementation effort.  

As an industry, we are facing fundamental changes worldwide that we have to deal with. Energy consumption must be reduced, as must CO2 emissions. We have to use materials efficiently and sparingly and we need cost-effective production. All of this requires very precise system control. The first step towards this is always well-coordinated communication in the system and the handling of control data. OPC UA provides the basis for all of this. 

OPC UA also helps in dealing with the important question that Glenn raised at the beginning: the shortage of skilled workers. There is a worldwide shortage of qualified young people. But if you are supplying high-precision machines and cutting-edge technology and there is a shortage of people who can control these systems, then you need digitalization to simplify the system and make it work. OPC UA makes this possible. 


More than 200 companies are members of the VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery trade association, covering over 90 percent of the industry's production in Germany. Ten percent of member companies come from Austria, Switzerland and France. The chairman of the trade association is Ulrich Reifenhäuser, managing partner of Reifenhäuser GmbH & Co KG.