Chips Are Up

The Chasm Between the Plant Floor and the Data Processing Center Remains Huge, Wide and Deep

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Jim MontagueBy Jim Montague, Executive Editor

I don't know what I'm talking about. Old news, right? Well, certainly, but this time I'm also relearning some things I thought were familiar. For instance, I've covered industrial networking for many years and witnessed much of its evolution from hardwiring to fieldbuses to Ethernet and wireless, and more recently toward cloud-based services and virtualized computing.

I assumed I was well-acquainted with these topics, but I didn't know the half of it. Researching this month's cover article on the biggest technologies underlying industrial networking for our quarterly Industrial Networking magazine was a cup of ice down my back on a cold November day. After all this time, I haven't really learned a thing.

I thought process control and IT engineers were finally talking and collaborating. Wrong. Though there's certainly more cooperation than in the past, I've learned that the chasm between the plant floor and the data processing center remains huge, wide and deep. Many of the folks I tried to interview on the IT and microprocessor manufacturing side seem to have little or no awareness of process control and automation or other manufacturing applications in which their CPUs are used. They just make the chips.

Unfortunately, many process equipment suppliers seem to have little interest in knowing what's inside the chips that run their PLCs, transmitters, Ethernet switches and other critical backbones that support their field. At this point, more than a few start talking about black boxes and magic.

The refreshing news is that a few chipmakers are intensely focused on the process control industry and its needs.

Worse, despite all the hype about Ethernet-based switches and devices able to translate between fieldbus protocols, there apparently is still no common source code for control schemes, according to longtime industrial networking expert Dick Caro of CMC Associates Inc. (http://cmc.us). So even though there are templates and function blocks that allow some translation between protocols, it's still not possible for PLCs and DCSs from different manufacturers to fully interoperate. Consequently, despite all the useful changes that Ethernet and wireless have enabled, it seems that even now some proprietary forces remain intent on denying or choking off access to truly interoperable networking.

However, the surprising and refreshing news is that a few microprocessor manufacturers are intensely focused on the process control and automation industry and its needs. For example, chipmakers Altera and AMD each report that their field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), development kits and data processing accessories, such as ARM core processors, are being designed and built with the needs of process control suppliers and end users in mind.

This awareness and collaboration between microprocessor builders, IT technicians, automation suppliers, system integrators and process control engineers is going to be even more crucial in the near future. This is because, as the microprocessor and data processing juggernaut continues to rumble on ahead, it will continue to pull all the process control, manufacturing, business and consumer technologies along behind it. So everyone is going to have to cooperate more to help each other ride this roller coaster without falling off. 

So what can each of us do? Just try to learn more about the other side. If you're in process control and automation, find out more about  the IT side and its microprocessors and software, and vice versa. And, while you're there, bring them an update about how process control systems function, how they have longer equipment lifecycles, and how they must maintain reliability, uptime and safety. It's surprising how many folks outside the process control field don't know these basics facts about it.

However, just as teachers learn from their students, you may give others new awareness and understanding, even while you're trying to deepen your own understanding of the formerly familiar. Now that's real multitasking. 

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