Network Incompatibility Is Good News at HMS

You could date the beginning of the fieldbus era to the first release of the Profibus protocol in 1989, or perhaps to its first acceptance as a DIN standard in 1993, but it would probably be more accurate to place the birth of the industrial networking market as we know it in 1994. That was when HMS Industrial Networks, based in Halmstad, Sweden, then just four years old, introduced its first Anybus gateway module to link incompatible fieldbus networks.

It wasn't until six years later that the IEC finally accepted that the holy grail of a single unified fieldbus standard was unachievable and ratified IEC 61158, giving its approval to no less than eight separate and incompatible protocols. Today, according to Björn Franzen, general manager of the newly launched Coventry-based U.K. operation for HMS, there are no less than 150 different industrial networks in use worldwide, of which some 50 can be described as 'open,' and 10 are industrial implementations of that other 'universal' standard, Ethernet. No wonder a smiling Staffan Dahlström, HMS CEO and co-founder with vice-chairman Nicolas Hassbjer, after whom the company was originally named as Hassbjer MicroSystems, confidently asserted that "There is no real driver for true standardization."

Dahlström and Franzen were speaking at the London press launch in early March of the HMS U.K. company and the U.K. launch of its new families of Anybus X-Gateway and Anybus Communicator products on HMS Belfast, where HMS stands for Her Majesty’s Ship, but since this battleship has been the venue for many a fieldbus-related press event over the past 20 years, the link was too good to miss. Adding a further touch of nostalgia to the event was the presence of Steve Jones as master of ceremonies, a former Mitsubishi Europe vice president of automation sales development and, most recently, general manager of the CC-Link Partner Association—a man who knows all about the problems and opportunities presented by the industrial networking world's Tower of Babel.

HMS is one of Sweden's fastest growing companies with a market capitalisation of nearly $200 million and a turnover which grew 52% in 2010 to reach USD50 million. Dahlström identifies the promise of improved productivity as the main driver for the growth of the fieldbus market and, hence, of HMS, with demand in the past five years focussing on enhanced flexibility, preventative maintenance and improved energy efficiency. Over 70% of total sales come from a claimed total of 913 manufacturers, including blue chip names such as Siemens and ABB, who embed HMS products into their own devices to provide network connectivity, while nearly a quarter is accounted for by gateways used to link incompatible networks and fieldbuses. There's also a fast developing market in remote device management.

With well over one million interfaces in the field—that particular milestone was passed as long ago as 2009 – HMS expects uptake of its technology to accelerate even further with the introduction of its latest generation of products, based around the new NP30 processor ASIC and a modular suite of protocol stacks for all of the major industrial networks, which enables customization to the specific requirements of a particular application. More compact and consuming 50% less power than their predecessors, the new products are optimised for slave/adapter interfaces and feature a high level of integration with Profibus, Ethernet and CAN interfaces on board. All Ethernet versions also offer web support including integrated web servers with SSI, email client and FTP capability.

As in the previous generation, the new technology provides the basis both for network-to- network communication via the X-Gateway family and serial-to-network integration of devices using the Communicator family. In both cases, the emphasis is on simplicity of implementation through Windows-based configuration without the need for programming or a detailed understanding of network protocols, while new packaging is designed to simplify installation and integration with other equipment, as well as providing for 'own labelling' by third parties.

The dream of the original proponents of a single unified fieldbus was of multi-vendor interoperability, so that a user could, at will, connect, say, a Rockwell drive with a Siemens PLC or an ABB robot with a Schneider PLC. However, by maintaining a public commitment to open systems while covertly seeking to retain control of what were originally proprietary protocols and hence to lock in their users, vendors have ironically not only provided an unprecedented growth opportunity to companies such as HMS ,but through the increasing transparency of gateway products, also created the almost universal vendor independence they had tried so hard to frustrate.

Nor does the industry as a whole seem to have learned from its past mistakes. As the route to FDT-EDDL integration becomes ever more obscure and WirelessHART - ISA 100.11a rapprochement seems ever less likely, opportunities for third parties to develop businesses focused on bridging between the automation industry's multiple incompatible standards multiply by the day. No wonder Staffan Dahlström feels confident of maintaining the HMS 20% growth rate.

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