Vendor vs. vendor

CONTROL Editor in Chief Walt Boyes issues a challenge to end users everywhere: Tell your vendors to stop playing Spy vs. Spy and participate fairly in standards creation for fieldbus and wireless.

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Walt BoyesBy Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

 

IN THE old Mad magazine, there was a cartoon feature that ran monthly called “Spy Vs. Spy.” Running at the height of the Cold War, the feature poked fun directly at the international espionage apparatus most people saw only in the books and films about superspy James Bond.

In a telling move, graphically, there were two spies, identical in shape and gesture, except one was always colored white and the other was always colored black. It was never clear whether the white spy or the black one was the good guy. It always seemed that both of them were doing identical things, without regard for right or wrong.

It always came down to advantage.

That’s how it works with vendors in the process automation market. It always comes down to advantage.

The Fieldbus Wars have been going on for nearly a generation, now. As Rich Merritt’s cover article in this issue shows, they’ve never stopped. They’ve simply been in “cold war” mode for years, but now they’re heating up again. We have “hot spots” breaking out with the FTD/DTL vs. EDDL dustup, with interoperability issues concerning Industrial Ethernet, and with other issues.

We now have, in addition to a Fieldbus War, a Wireless War where jungle in-fighting is at its peak. We probably won’t have a decent wireless standard for process automation for years, if I am reading the tea leaves properly.

And, of course, the end users will continue to suffer.

The Fieldbus Wars left the market shattered. With the exception of HART, which is clearly capable of being a fieldbus, but isn’t often used that way, end-users have voted with their dollars against massive implementations of fieldbuses in their plants. Considering the market potential, it’s ridiculous that—at the most—650,000 Foundation fieldbus devices have been sold in the past 10 years. My own and others’ estimate puts it at substantially lower than that.

Vendor infighting has left the HART Wireless Working Group in disarray. SP100 is being distracted, with the formation of marketing committees, and RFID committees, from the proper work of the committee: creating a workable standard for process automation use of wireless.

And, of course, the end users always lose.

A senior employee at one of the largest process automation companies recently told me, regarding wireless, “End users will buy proprietary standards because they have to buy something. All my customers are telling me they don’t care about standards.”

I’m sure he was engaging in a little game of Spy vs. Spy because I’ve been talking to his customers, too, and what they’re telling me is that they’re not going to buy any appreciable number of wireless-enabled devices or networks until there is a workable standard.

Of course, my anonymous vendor is right. If the vendors can foul up the standards-making process long enough, we’ll be left with the same kind of pile of mess that they left us with from SP50 and the IEC Fieldbus Standard. And then end users will have to choose from proprietary or near-proprietary, non-standards-based products.

The problem with this, as the fieldbus debacle showed clearly, is that both the vendors and the end users lose yet again.

What I’m hearing from vendors, with all the disinformatzia stripped away, is a serious cry for help: “Stop us before we screw up again!”

So, here’s the ball, end users. If you’re really as mad as you say to me that you are, tell your vendors to stop playing Spy Vs. Spy, and start serving the end user community by participating fairly in standards creation for fieldbus and wireless. There’s enough market out there for competition after we reach agreement on standards.

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