Fieldbus / Wireless

Is Fieldbus a Three-Beanie Copter Problem?

There Is Work Going on to Simplify Selecting and Designing Useful Fieldbus Applications. It Remains to Be Seen if We'll Ever Get to Fieldbus for Dummies

By John Rezabek

Maris Graube, president of Relcom Inc., has been a pioneer in the development of useful products for fieldbus and other process control networks. Recently, he started the Cobalt Process web store, and he had a new vision: that fieldbus had become standardized and simple enough that end users could apply it without a lot of expensive help or hardware, rather like the way we all slap together our home networks using Ethernet and 802.11b/g/n appliances from Lowe's and Wal-Mart.

Cobalt aims to be like the Newegg of fieldbus, where shoppers can fill their online cart with attractively priced fieldbus network goodies, enter their credit card numbers, and click "submit order." But Graube is concerned there are still some formidable obstacles for the novice. Somehow folks totally lacking beanie copters manage to set up a reasonably functional home network, without needing a Cisco-Certified Wireless Network Professional. Will something similar ever be possible for fieldbus?

Maybe. Home networks are simpler. For one thing, at home we start with the "host;" the "seed" purchase that gets us started on our nerdy shopping fest is our desktop or laptop, which is and will likely remain the most flexible and powerful component of the home network. It's already standardized—PC or Apple—and it ships with very powerful and free pieces of software: a browser and a network management app. If these programs don't have their own wizards for getting novices going, a staggering world of information and advice is available once they get online.

Read Also: What You Need to Know about Fieldbus Now

To connect a Mac or PC to the Internet, the novice can employ a beanie-copter-qualified, on-site specialist, most often affiliated with a cable or phone service provider. And there's BestBuy's "Geek Squad" or "Gearhead Support" from Netgear.

DIY fieldbus wannabes, even those who occasionally sport a spinning propeller, have a somewhat more daunting challenge. One path to creating a freestanding fieldbus network uses software that runs on a properly equipped laptop, but said software is expensive and complex and intended more as an analysis tool for the three-to-four beanie-copter specialist. In contrast, Softing manufactures FG-110 FF, a four-segment gateway that can be purchased for the price of a high-end gaming PC. You can configure segments using a web browser interface or the included Windows PC configuration program. Field instruments, power supplies and physical layer hardware are extra, but Softing offers training and technical support, and has some free application notes and videos available for download. Users also need to procure and configure their own HMI, which can be integrated using OPC or Modbus. It's beginning to sound more in the realm of "real" end-user DIY.

One important difference from consumer home networks is fault tolerance. It's one thing if your children are whining there's no Wi-Fi. It's another thing entirely if customers aren't getting their widgets, or the boss is impatiently awaiting start-up. A reliable, well-controlled process is necessary to deliver value to your business. The networking and configuration skills may be possible for the novice, but if you are doing more than monitoring some variables, formal process control training is recommended. Foundation fieldbus provides a standard repertoire of powerful function blocks for process control, but using them involves nuances that are fairly deep in the universe of the three-beanie controls specialist. But, if you've configured closed-loop control on a PLC or DCS, it's unlikely the tools for FF will be extremely intimidating.

Meanwhile, Graube is working on a compendium of information to simplify selecting and designing useful fieldbus applications, especially for new users. It remains to be seen if we'll ever get to Fieldbus for Dummies.