Exploring the importance of joining the Open Process Automation forum

Not participating in OPA's effort that could free end users from proprietary control systems, and leaving the initial end users to drown in a sea of "helpful" suppliers, is really beyond cowardly, argues Jim Montague

By Jim Montague

So I'm sitting in the audience during a panel discussion at a recent user group meeting, and I realize that two of the panelists work for a couple of the major oil and gas companies. Before I can think to do it, someone asks during the Q and A period if they're going to be joining the Open Process Automation (OPA) forum.

This, of course, is the effort being led by ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin and the Open Group to develop a non-proprietary process control standard, and the organizers have reported that they're in desperate need of end users to get their initiative off the ground.

What happened next at the panel discussion was a little strange, but it's definitely something that I've seen before. The two gentlemen sort of cleared their throats, smirked slightly, and simply started answering an entirely different question. They didn't just ignore the OPA question as if they hadn't heard it, and they didn't respond with a polite "No comment" or "We really can't get into that right now." Maybe they were just flustered, but this seemed more like an active, contemptuous ignoring of the question. Maybe they were resentful about the way their companies had been treated by ExxonMobil in the past? I can't be sure because no explanations were forthcoming.

Related: End user support of OPA’s efforts necessary for interoperability's success

Their response also appeared to convey a certain "good luck with that" attitude, as if they were not going to be caught dead helping with the OPA effort, even though there's every indication that it could be hugely beneficial to their process applications, productivity and the bottom lines of the companies. If this outlook is widespread in the oil and gas industries, then OPA's organizers are going to have to cast a much wider net to the other process industries to recruit the end users they're going to need to achieve their open control systems dream.

I'm always a little mystified by those who sit back and let others take risks for them. I know the process industries are conservative, risk-averse and reluctant to change. I know about the mantra of being the second early adopter. However, not participating in OPA's effort that could free end users from proprietary control systems, and leaving the initial end users to drown in a sea of "helpful" suppliers, is really beyond cowardly.

This situation is like the two boys in the old Life cereal commercial, who won't try the new cereal (I'm not gonna try it), but instead pass it off on their younger brother, who turns out to love it (He likes it! Hey, Mikey!) It's even more like the story of Little Red Hen, who spends all day baking a cake or loaf of bread with no help from her do-nothing housemates, who still want to share in the results after all the work is done.

So what's to be done? More thankless evangelizing, I guess. More slow chipping away, and more convincing process end users that plug-and-play controls is a shore they will eventually reach. In this case, the cake is potentially hundreds of billions of dollars saved in simpler and shorter process control design, construction and maintenance costs. I'd certainly want to get involved if I was paying those kinds of bills.

As for me, I'm researching and writing another cover article on process safety, which is a topic I hadn't covered for several years. I'd forgotten, but it's an even sadder tale in many ways. You know how it goes. BP and its contractors weren't willing to spend a few hundred thousands dollars for sufficient blowout preventing equipment and controls, and so 11 men died and much of the Gulf of Mexico was fouled at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars.

This is a different story than ignoring questions about OPA, of course, but their common thread is the same dismissive, actively ignorant, "you're not gonna tell us what to do" attitude that wastes so much of our collective resources and time.

What's the solution? Going after that attitude actively and repeatedly, challenging it whenever and whereever it shows up, and frankly having enough professional pride in your industry to help draft the regulations that it sorely needs. I just hope that everyone who has a voice will let it be heard in these and other situations.

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  • Having been involved in the process control industry for over 25 years has given me the opportunity to see firsthand the pros and cons of open sourcing. The highly critical nature of control system components necessitates extreme caution when making changes. Our company directly supports legacy systems as its core competency. Many end users particularly in the US are so married to a particular manufactures control platform that introducing a completely new system would be a huge leap of faith for the management. That is why the majority of fortune 500 manufactures tend to maintain legacy systems for as long as economically possible. The benefits of open sourcing would be or should be self evident one would tend to think. And the gradual phasing in of this type of System has many benefits. But convincing any given individual at a large company as in your example to except responsibility for implementing a completely new platform would be a daunting task even for the most persuasive argument. I find the whole concept interesting and would enjoy being a part of that committee. And I wish them all luck in achieving their goals. Patience and persistence will pay off.

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