One Ring to Rule Them All

Recently there have been a spate of product introductions of wireless networks that let you incorporate anything and everything into your control system: hazardous gas sniffers, man-down and personnel location services, other RFID feeds, intrusion alarms, safety shower alarms, and more.

By Walt Boyes

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By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

J. R. R. Tolkien offered a word of warning about cool devices. In The Lord of the Rings, he warned of the seduction of technology. The evil demon Sauron made nifty rings that all did nifty things, and he gave them to dwarves, elves and men. Most of them made a bad end. The reason was that, while he was making those nifty rings, he was also making “one ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them.”

Recently there have been a spate of product introductions of wireless networks that are intended to be the “one big network” sort of like the Industrial Workers of the World’s One Big Union of a century ago. These networks will let you incorporate anything and everything into your control system: hazardous gas sniffers, man-down and personnel location services, other RFID feeds, intrusion alarms, safety shower alarms, and, probably, the plant manager’s bathroom breaks.

The idea that this is a good thing is kind of like the old joke about the product development engineer, who put lots of things into his products “because he can.”

Maybe.

We work in the most risk-averse part of the high technology industries, and maybe the most risk-averse part of the entire manufacturing landscape. If enterprise IT makes a mistake, maybe some emails will be lost, and maybe some financial data will have to be re-created. If we make a mistake, in the petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals or food industries, or any of the other process manufacturing verticals, quite possibly people either inside or outside the plant will be injured or killed. Makes one pause, doesn’t it?

Somehow, I think users will be much more tentative with these “one network” products than the vendors may believe—especially if the vendors do not cooperate and produce common, off-the-shelf, interoperable, and compatible systems.
That’s what happened with fieldbus. Faced with a complicated set of choices between a dozen-odd fieldbus standards, end users voted decisively with their feet to remain with HART, and to some extent, Profibus. Why? They are simple, understandable, and are baby steps away from the now-antiquated S50 analog 4-20 mA DC standard.

The introduction of several “one big networks” in the last couple of months has once again raised an issue certain to confuse the end users, paralyze them, and cause them to not do anything.

Several of these networks make a point of distinguishing between WirelessHART, the recently approved wireless standard of the HART Communication Foundation, and “HART wireless.” The latter is supposedly better, since it is part of each vendor’s one big network spec, and will probably be included in ISA’s SP100 standard—likely two years hence, when the second revision is released. It’s only available now in proprietary formats from several vendor companies.

Once again, in the name of competition, the end users are being deliberately confused. And once again, they will respond by sticking to what they know. Many will move to WirelessHART because it’s the only approved industry standard for wireless sensing. Some will move to these one big networks. It may be far too early for them. Let’s walk before we run.

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