No Wires. No Limits

Read the speech transcript of the ISA Wireless Summit, held in Vancouver, BC on July 23th, 2007. Presented by John Berra, Emerson Process Management.

By John Berra

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Standards are Essential

Users want standards for wireless – and so do I. Users want confidence wireless equipment and networks will work together, regardless of supplier – now, and years from now. They don't want to be locked into proprietary networks. Standards are good for suppliers, too.  In the DVD world there’s a standards battle going on between HDVD and Blu-Ray. What’s happening is that they aren’t selling very many of either format. The vast majority of end users aren’t buying them and the vast expenditure by the suppliers isn’t being paid back.

Standards increase user willingness to buy. They give us confidence the approach we're taking will be accepted in the marketplace.  But mostly, standards are good for our customers. That’s why Emerson has supported standards efforts for a long time. We continue to contribute people, time, money and intellectual property. Our engineers are active in both SP100 and Wireless HART activities.  We have introduced pre-standard wireless products so users can start getting experience and benefits right away – but guaranteed that buyers will have a path to eventual standards.  People ought to get started.

But making standards happen has historically been a challenge in our industry.

Making standards is tough. I have as many scars on my back as anyone from the fieldbus wars. Some may view me as deserving those scars. Others may say well, your company helped to push it all through. I’d like to talk to you directly and personally about how to avoid what became the fieldbus wars.

What did we learn from that experience? People were trying to write a standard for something that didn’t exist. Don’t invent the standard unless you have to, unless there is nothing that can serve. The second thing that caused the problem was that there was lots of debate over stuff that just plain didn’t matter. Focus on the stuff that will get the thing done. Pick one and drive on. Don’t try to reinvent something that is already well proven and already exists. Stay close to the end users.

The end users want a standard as much or more than anybody else. They don’t necessarily have the ability to get into bits and bytes, but they can certainly tell you what their use cases are. This is going to sound strange coming from a supplier but dominate with end users. You need suppliers, but you need end users more. Make sure the standards process is generously sprinkled with end user involvement.

Speed is also important. Things in the fieldbus wars didn’t go very quickly. How do you achieve speed? Don’t over engineer and don’t debate over things that are not important to the fundamental principles. Look and see what is already out there. Leverage the hard work that has already been done.  Lots of plants are starting to put it work, or to think very hard about doing so. None of us wants to stand between those users and the benefits they can get from wireless.  We can get out of the way by setting politics aside and leveraging proven technologies to deliver a solid, usable standard as quickly as possible.

Another important consideration in all this is: The wired world is not going to go away. There will always be wired networks, wired instruments, and wired valves. So whatever we do, we need to maintain co-existence not only with wireless networks, but also with the wired networks already in existence.

What does all this mean in practical terms?  Two things.

1. Move as quickly as possible to provide practical standards at the field level.

ISA's SP100 scope is much broader than field-sensor networks, but has already taken key steps that will help at this level such as choosing the IEEE 802.15.4 radio and defining mesh as the recommended topology for the sensor network. At same time, the HART Communication Foundation working on Wireless HART which has been developed by team of leaders in the automation industry, including Honeywell, Siemens, ABB, E+H, others is already well along in the process and a bit further ahead than the SP100. It was approved by the HCF membership in June and is scheduled for publication in August 2007. It is compatible with widely used wired networks.

It clearly would be best for the industry to have a sensor standard…as soon as possible.  This is the goal of users from all over the industry, including those participating in SP100. Until now there has been only limited interaction between HCF and SP100 teams, but both have independently come to the same conclusions, such as choosing the IEEE 802.15.4 radio and mesh network technology. The industry as a whole – suppliers and especially users -- would benefit from recognizing that they have more in common than not. I would encourage the SP100 team to take advantage of the work already done on Wireless Hart. The SP100 team could then focus its efforts on the remaining portions of the standard.

2. Take advantage of wireless standards already in place at levels above the field sensor network, and fill in the gaps.

Many of the existing standards for IT-type wireless can form the basis for industrial wireless. Standards such as Wi-Fi are already established in that IT world, with products commercially available and proven in commercial applications all over the world. It makes sense for users to take advantage of those standards and products wherever practical. The broader market for these technologies makes them much cheaper than anything we could develop just for our relatively narrow niche. 

But there are issues unique to our industry that call for the expertise of the SP100 team. We need to address issues like hardening, ease of use, redundancy and network management in a process-plant environment. That's where SP100 can do what IT standards bodies can't.  SP100 has the unique opportunity to define a set of standards and best practices to make sure that all the technically relevant wireless networking solutions work together.

There's no question that arriving at a standard can be a struggle.  But it's not about one faction or another winning or losing.  It's about coming to agreement on how to make it easier for users to put this wonderful technology to work.  And if we don't succeed, we all lose.  The sooner standards are in place, the better for everyone. We need to get on with it. Suppliers will sell more products, and users will get more of the results that make wireless so valuable. The wireless potential of unlocking predictive intelligence so people can have a fighting chance to make their plants run better– this is what an automation professional is standing ready to deliver, and wireless is a key to delivering those benefits.

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