Luddites unite!

Tradition for its own sake is useless, of course, but tradition based on common sense is crucial for the success and safety of process control engineers and their applications.

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Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I really dislike change. Not so much because it jolts me out of my comfortable routine, but more because it tables the game just when I’ve figured out the rules.

Finally coping at school? Graduated. Learned to date semi-competently? Got married. Figured out how to live harmoniously with significant other? Had kids. Learned to cook? Too fat. Undertaken healthy adult lifestyle? Old. Consistent hairstyle? Bald.

Can you see the, ahem, pattern? Sure, but only when it’s too late. Sometimes hindsight seems like the only vision available. 

Okay, I admit it. I don’t like altering my routine either. However, I’ve also learned that resisting change can be the right thing to do, but only if it’s done for the right reasons. We techno-focused journalists often speak against innovation-choking inertia and fighting the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mindset, but sometimes reining in a new solution before it’s ready can be just as important in preventing problems. Tradition for its own sake is useless, of course, but tradition based on common sense is crucial for the success and safety of process control engineers and their applications.

This initial contradiction is resolved by the fact that many technical improvements aren’t really improvements at all. For example, despite the Internet’s power and scope, it’s still faster to look up definitions in a paperbound dictionary. Telephone conversations are still faster than e-mail, and conversation allows more evolving give-and-take exchanges of information as well. Newspapers convey more data faster than TV news reports. And, my paper notepad (or wood-pulp PDA, as I like to call it) doesn’t blink off like my colleagues’ Palm Pilots when their AAA batteries fizzle. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen many PDAs around lately. Maybe they’ve all been replaced by Blackberries, iPods or whatever’s coming next. Personally, I’m holding out for a cell phone that makes me breakfast.

Why are we so hypnotized by glitz? Why do we put so much apparent value on the newest technologies, even though their much-hyped promises fade faster than smoking breath on a cold day. And, most importantly, why are we so quick to glom on the next fad, and forget the hard lessons taught by the last one? Maybe we’re just bored. Maybe we need something to occupy all that extra brain power of which we reportedly use such a small percentage. Whatever the root cause, these same shortcomings hobble progress in industrial networking in the same way that they create snags and waste resources in consumer electronics and other human endeavors. 

For instance, multiplying Ethernet and Internet-enabled networking technologies allow far more open communications, but they can also leave unwary users open to unexpected vulnerabilities. Increasingly, software and chip-based control and automation functions have even more external connections, and so they have even more potential holes for intrusions by hackers and malicious software. A genuine non-improvement improvement.

However, while researching the “Come Together” cover story for this issue’s Industrial Networking supplement, I discovered many examples of this proverbial double-edged sword. Many more plant-floor devices now come equipped with Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, for example, but this can add to networking traffic complexities, cause jurisdictional conflicts between plant engineers and IT staffs and further weaken networks. In fact, despite their mounting costs, the physical isolation of stand-alone, point-to-point hardwiring makes old-fashioned networks more secure—but at the sacrifice of benefits that few manufacturers can ignore.

Fortunately, inventorying networks’ physical and digital components, examining data traffic, employing intelligent switching, implementing tested firewalls, establishing joint plant/IT teams and training staff in common-sense security procedures can alleviate most networking vulnerabilities. You just have to recognize baloney for what it is, turn away from the hype and concentrate on what your application truly needs.

While change may be inevitable, there’s no shame and some potential advantages in holding off on innovations until they demonstrate concrete benefits. The trick is becoming well-informed enough to know when and where those benefits will occur, and how to secure and apply them when they arrive. I find more useful answers when I ask questions, rather than passively wait for the next come-on to materialize. Good luck.

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