Are the wireless standards stalled?

At one point, SP100 nearly didn't issue a true standard. Now, HART Wireless is in trouble, too. What’s it going to take to not repeat the SP50 debacle? CONTROL Editor in Chief, Walt Boyes, comments.

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Walt Boyes, Editor in ChiefBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

DEAR AUTOMATION Vendors. I am on my knees. The single most important technical development issue facing process automation right now is how we will do wireless in the industrial plant environment. And we are in serious danger of screwing it up badly.

We all know what a mess the fieldbus standard war was, and still is. After 15 years, we’re still arguing about FDT and EDDL, instead of uniting to bring the benefits of fieldbus technology to the end-users you all say you care about. The end-users have replied by voting with their dollars. There are fewer than, charitably inflating the numbers, 500,000 Foundation Fieldbus enabled devices in the world, and nearly 21 million HART enabled devices. Why? Because it was a no-brainer to buy HART transmitters, which all worked the same way for years before the SP50 committee got its act reasonably together.

Enter the recent controversy over wireless standards in the industrial process market. Everybody is pointing fingers at everybody else. End users don’t really care what the standard says (except for the few that are on the standards committees, and represent the far right hand side of the bell curve), they just want a standard. Any workable standard will do.

Please contrast this with the marketplace for fax machines. In 1980, I had a wirephoto facsimile transmitting device. A first generation fax. It used a spark gap, a rotating drum, and it sent one page every 30 minutes. By 1985, I had an optical fax machine, 300 baud, and by 1990, the current fax machine was born.

For 20 years, from 1985 to 2005, millions and millions of fax machines were sold, and sold, and sold. Why? Because the CCITT (now the ITU, International Telecommunications Union) Fax standard was agreed to early, and quickly adopted by every vendor.

You see, these vendors saw a big pot of money in the hands of end-users of their products, and they knew that the only way they would ever get their hands on it is if they cooperated so they could compete. Other electronics and telecommunications industries have developed standards that way too. It’s time you all stepped up, too.

Unfortunately for end-users in process automation, you all have a long history of competing before you cooperate in the standards making process. It is often said that you should never look too closely at how either sausage or standards are made. The fact is, as one high ranking automation vendor told me recently, “It is a balancing act between wanting to act for the best interest of the end users, and trying somehow to squeeze some little tiny competitive advantage out of the wording of the standard.”

ITU had the same problem we have, with a developing technology, and they wrote a standard that could be both forward and backward compatible, so that they didn’t have to wait until the absolute best technology came along, they could adopt the best available technology and amend the standard as the technology improved. We don’t have the luxury of waiting, just like ITU didn’t have the luxury of waiting.

A big player in this game told me he doesn’t think there is a market for wireless yet. He believes, as do I, that the market will happen after the standard is born, and the size of the market is going to be determined by the speed at which a standard is adopted, and actual working stuff gets in the field.

Nobody has all the answers for industrial wireless, and the sooner we all admit it, the better. But between you vendors, you have the ability to create a standard that describes best available technology while preserving some room to maneuver for future technology development.

The end user community isn’t looking for Mr. Goodbar, or a silver bullet. They want a dependable standard that they can specify for wireless in their plants. Is that too much to ask?

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