With technology, old is a relative term

The staying power of Oldtimer Technology reminds us to not get carried away with the new, dramatically improved, high-performance automation toys and to simply use what works.

By Joe Feeley, Senior Technical Editor

I'VE TALKED BEFORE about the responsibility we have here to provide a balanced view of technology. Editors might be immersed in hype about the newest or most dramatically improved, high-performance automation toys, but that doesn’t mean we think every reader needs or wants to immediately run out and buy it. For many of you, migration to new technology—on your own terms—is the path we can help you with the most.

The prime corollary to that is “Use what works.” Why replace old technology with something new, if what you have satisfies your customers’ price and performance needs and your own cost objectives? 

It also reminds me that “old” is a relative term for the industrial network technology in our space. That’s one of the takeaways I got from this month’s industry trends cover story ("New Trends, Old Friends") by Senior Technical Editor Rich Merritt. Rich discusses the ever-growing interest in and adoption of Ethernet as a plant or factory-floor network, including the hybrid real-time control products we covered in our Summer 2005 issue. Rich also points out that a significant attraction of Ethernet is its ability to provide remote diagnostic and troubleshooting tools. The potential cost savings there get everyone’s attention. This seems to be an inevitable trend.

Rich also pays homage to the burgeoning buzz for wireless and its varying degrees of usefulness for industrial applications. Rich was told that most process plants take measurements at about 10% of the possible points. If sensor and installation costs get low enough, however, making measurements at many of those points would have to improve the process model. He says it’s coming, albeit after some standards-starved connectivity issues get resolved.

But here’s where the staying power of “oldtimer” technology reminds us to not get carried away. Fieldbus, in the uniforms of Foundation, Profibus, Modbus, and others is as much of a trend as those two newbies are, adds Rich.

It seems that the fieldbuses that we’ve grown to love and hate over the past 10 years still have strong and expanding roots in the field. It looks like this older stuff stands on its own merits, and because it’s the devil you do know, it provides the type of solutions that many still want.

Rich tells us fieldbus is a trend that’s not going away any time soon. Do you agree? Tell us what you think.

For another article this month, "CAN Solutions Drive Onto Plant Floor," we took a bit of a chance and decided to take you further behind the technology curtain than we normally go to look at how CAN Bus, another old—but likewise growing in industrial automation—network protocol works and offers performance enhancement by improvements at the chip level.

Very few of you get involved at the chip level of your digital networks, but sometimes users can gain some insight by understanding how chip and board-level design considerations impact performance issues such as electromagnetic noise interference and signal transmission distance. It seemed to us that it could help you ask some useful questions of your network device and controller suppliers.

It’s sort of the “Intel Inside” analogy, although in this case it’s a design engineer at chip maker AMI Semiconductor who tells the story.

Finally, I want to introduce you to our new Executive Editor, Jim Montague. He might be the new guy in our office, but Jim has been an editor in the industrial automation space for eight years and has followed the industrial networking beat closely during that time. You’ll be seeing much more of him in the issues ahead. He has an important role in our relentless efforts to keep doing what we do—both the old stuff and the new stuff—better.

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