Optimization

Control magazine documents the digital age

The past 30 years have seen wave after wave of field network innovation and controversy

By Ian Verhappen

To paraphrase a popular song from 1969, it was the “dawn of the age of digitalization,” and since its beginning some 30 years ago, Control has documented the digital age for field devices. At the birth of the magazine, HART was on its way to becoming mainstream and fieldbus standards were starting to develop. By the mid-1990s, all the trade journals were talking about the different fieldbus options and, of course, with the “fieldbus war” between Profibus and Foundation fieldbus in full swing, there was always plenty of material. This was also the heyday of the integrated tradeshow, in particular ISA’s Fall event, which has since gone the way of many other similar shows, replaced by user group meetings and vertical-focused conferences/exhibitions such as Putman Media’s recent Smart Industry conference.

Coinciding with the bus wars was the growing use of commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies, and no COTS technology has taken our industry by storm more than Ethernet/IP-based systems. No sooner had the fieldbus wars concluded at the end of the 1990s when our eyes turned to the next frontier—wireless. WirelessHART was released in 2004 with ISA100.11 already well into development by that time, hence the start of round two of the digital field network battles. This one also ran for approximately five years, though not quite as acrimonious in the public eye. The players learned at least that much the first time. Still, there was plenty of material for the trade journals.

In both cases, the market rather than the standards committee has decided the winners, with the answer on which network is best for your use remaining unchanged: “It depends on the industry and application.”

Another decade brought another new digital trend, this time the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which began in 2011. Fortunately, the competing consortiums—Industrie 4.0 and Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC)—seem to have learned from history and are cooperating in their efforts. Similarly, the associated international standards bodies within IEC, ISO and ITU are also working together. However, with a subject as complex and wide ranging as IIoT, there certainly will be some overlaps that will lead to conflicts in interpretation.

As we are nearing the end of this decade, new digital innovation questions remain to be answered, with the topmost in my mind at least being what will result from the Open Process Automation Forum (OPAF)/ExxonMobil initiative to bring COTS to the next level? Europe’s NAMUR organization has been driving change for suppliers along the Rhine and beyond (i.e. NE043, NE107) for approximately two decades now—will OPAF have a similar role in North America? Beyond North America, considering the global scope of the players? Or, like some perhaps prematurely launched earlier initiatives, fade to memory?

What will the field junction box of the future look like? With the upcoming release of IEEE 802.3cg enabling power over Ethernet (PoE) to an intelligent device like the OPAF DCN and configurable I/O, will marshalling cabinets and interface rooms be replaced by a PoE switch?

Will the trend to Ethernet/IP (ODVA suite) continue to supplant Modbus as a default or common denominator communications protocol, at least in North America?

One thing we do know is that our industry continually evolves, and therefore, as responsible automation practitioners, it is our responsibility to remain aware of these trends so we can properly plan for the future. Though I know I am a bleeding-edge person, most people will continue to wait until the kinks have been worked out of the latest-and-greatest in trial or pilot facilities, preferably elsewhere, before putting them in their plant(s). In the meantime, I and the remainder of the team here at Control will do our best to keep you aware of not just the technology, trends and news, but also the lessons learned on how as well as when and where to properly and safely implement them in your facility.

As you can see, the digital journey to the field continues. As it has since the beginning, Control will continue to keep you informed of not only the technology but how it can affect the way you work. Let the adventure continue.

Like this article? Sign up for the twice weekly Control Update newsletter and get articles like this delivered right to your inbox.