By Jim Montague, Executive Editor
Precise measurements, descriptions, analysis and reporting are the heart and soul of process control and automation. And even slight errors, confusion or laziness at any of these steps can be costly and potentially disastrous. Likewise, in technical areas where differing procedures and interpretations remain, many engineers and their supporters have drafted and implement standards for equipment and practices to help bring much-needed uniformity and consistency to many applications and facilities. The most notable of these, of course, are those standards related to safety, power and environmental conditions.
So despite all this inherent technical precision and standard practices, what's the deal with all the sloppy language? After more than a few years covering process control and automation, I'm still amazed by the precision of its users and their many tools, and I'm still dismayed by the field's often wildly inaccurate and misused words, descriptions and texts.
Now I'm not even talking about spelling, grammar and sentence construction. Those problems are easy enough to correct. What I'm referring to is confusing language that perpetuates fear, prejudice and inertia.
For instance, process control and automation still has far too many names for the same things—and sometimes too few names for very different things. No doubt this is because process control originated from so many disparate industrial roots and still gets involved in so many different applications and industries. It's a language-based occupational hazard.
For example, when I arrived in the process control realm it took awhile for me to realize that "receiver" and "transceiver"—and even "transmitter"—were often used interchangeably to talk about the same basic device. Also, while covering industrial networking, I ran into an endless series of hubs, routers, switches, gateways and other labels for devices that, again, were frequently used inconsistently. Many suppliers and users often employed the same word for different components or used different words for the same device. This can be very confusing—and so, unapproachable by potential users.
Unfortunately, the use of bad language is highly addictive, and so the desire to toss around the latest buzzwords is impossible for many of us to resist. We'd guess the culprits here are our overly large and active brains and our low self-esteem that make us all want to appear smart and cool.
Excuses aside, however, where the heck did "ergonomics" come from, and why did it have to be replaced by "user-centered design?" And at what point did it suddenly become a good idea to go from machine-to-machine (M2M) communications to "the Internet of Things?"
Even worse, more than a few names imply that their devices and technologies can do more than they truly can, or that they have a wider jurisdiction and influence that they really do. For example, the name "EtherNet/IP" still rings sour in many ears.
Now, I know that marketing is important and bragging is unavoidable. However, the true price of confusing, bamboozling and lying isn't just in the deception itself, but in its results of damaging relationships and destroying potential opportunities. Sadly, many potential users, both rookies and veterans, cling to the uncertainty fostered by bad language to rationalize not trying new technologies or innovations that could by hugely beneficial to them.
Consequently, when I do interviews, I obsessively question folks about the generic description of what their technology is and what it does. I've found that everyone appreciates a simple explanation. All it takes is a little digging to gather basic facts, sitting still for a few minutes and asking—"What's really going on here? What am I trying to say?"
So since we're starting the newly minted year of 2010, how about a resolution to be just a bit more precise in how we use our words and language? It could have some useful payoffs.