Can Foundation fieldbus (FF) stay hungry?

FF may be facing unexpected challenges in its task to remain useful as it integrates ever more closely with EDDL, COTS Ethernet, and Internet-bsed and/or wireless networking. Executive Editor Jim Montague reports.

By Jim Montague

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Jim Montague, Executive EditorBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

To paraphrase Barbara Mandrell and George Jones, I was Foundation fieldbus when Foundation fieldbus wasn’t cool.

Over the past 10 years, I’ve enjoyed learning and writing about its H1 and high-speed Ethernet (HSE) protocols’ improved data handling and networking capabilities. I cheered its early struggles as an underdog against older, hardwired, proprietary and more widespread networking protocols with “millions of nodes” in their installed bases. I watched as FF and its Fieldbus Foundation developed and launched its interoperability evaluation, compliance testing and certification procedures, its training facilities, and safety instrumented system (SIS) and other capabilities. And I was delighted when FF recently partnered with other electronic device description language-based (EDDL) technologies, including Profibus, HART and OPC, to jointly improve communications. Not surprisingly, FF has gained substantial momentum and now is implemented in more than 10,000 control systems and more than 600,000 fieldbus devices.

Unfortunately, time wounds all heels, and just as everything has its price, FF’s success also may be saddling it with some unexpected challenges. Perhaps it’s just a function of  growth and size, but FF seems to be taking on some of the characteristics of its old, node-flexing, pre-Ethernet opponents. At its Feb. 22 general assembly meeting in Houston FF’s leadership stressed that FF was more than a digital replacement for 4-20 mA networking, and tried to recast it as an “infrastructure management” system or “process automation infrastructure” based on a troika of “business intelligence,” “open scalable integration” and “process integrity.”

This was followed by some of ARC Advisory Group’s eternally sunny projections, which claimed FF will go from making up two-thirds to three-quarters of “total shipments of fieldbus solutions for the process industries by communication protocol” by 2011. This narrowly defined study didn’t include the 4-20 mA and proprietary methods that dominated networking in the past and persist in most legacy applications now, or include the Ethernet-based protocols poised to dominate its future.

To be fair, I know installed nodes are important milestones for fieldbuses because they measure how far and wide it’s being adopted, but these totals have little use beyond superficial marketing. FF’s former foes used to stress their millions of nodes because they seemed to have few new innovations to offer, which is why FF shouldn’t rely on its growing market presence now. Specific improvements in specific applications are what matter to users—not total installed nodes, market shares, or commands to love a technology because it’s just so freakin’ omnipresent. Fortunately, FF’s recent meeting also featured some specific applications:

  • Wes Meger, director of Stonehaven Quality Controls, uses FF to help perform steam-assisted, gravity-drainage (SAGD) processing of oil sands at Suncor Energy’s Firebag project in Fort McMurray, Alberta. There pilot commissioning used to require three men 48 hours to do 48 devices, but now takes two men 24 hours to do 109 devices with FF—or about one-sixth as long as before. 
  • Gerard Willams, automation engineer at BP’s Wamsutter project in Wyoming, says BP is using FF to help monitor 1,000 existing wells and 3,000 planned wells at its 99.7 x 93.3 km natural gas field. FF is helping BP measure temperature and pressure on 80 to 120 devices on each well, transmit RTU reports via Motorola’s Canopy radio network and remotely change parameters.
  • Michel Miller, PE, of Duke Energy’s Oconee Nuclear Station in Seneca, N.C., says his operation’s multi-year, license-renewal upgrade is replacing obsolete, overcrowded, analog and pneumatic, DCS-based devices on three facility-support units with digital, FF-based, loop-level field devices. Each unit is upgrading 25% of its total process-monitoring loops, or about 100 to 125 devices on 64 segments.

Given its end users’ needs, FF’s future task likely will be maintaining its usefulness as it integrates ever more closely  with EDDL’s cooperative strategies, COTS Ethernet, and Internet-based and/or wireless networking. Maybe FF worries that it’s succeeding just in time to be overtaken. I think FF will continue to thrive if it focuses on it roots and stays hungry, though this can be hard to do when you’re well-fed.

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