Convergence—or not, that’s the question...
Much has been made of the “end-user revolt” early this year at the ISA100 meeting held jointly with the ARC Forum in Orlando. The group of large end-users (in the sincere and correct belief that they were also representing the views of smaller end-users in general) told the major automation vendors that they were tired of wireless wars and they wanted a sincere convergence effort between WirelessHART, now IEC62591, and ISA100.11a-2009. This revitalized the ISA100.12 committee, which had been established to explore convergence.
Recently I did two surveys. One, of end-users, found that over 50% of them felt that the wireless standards war had either delayed a decision on implementing wireless sensors or made them investigate alternatives to wireless. Another, of members of the ISA100 committee itself about whether they really believed in convergence between IEC62591 WirelessHART and ISA100.11a, 23% said “yes,” 34% said “maybe” and 43% said “no.”
So we have a serious problem with the adoption of wireless field devices in the process industries. Now that the Chinese WIA standard has been approved by IEC, we are very close to having four standards. The drive of the ISA100.11a team to produce a new version of ISA100.11a-2010 could actually produce a fifth standard, since the ISA100.12 effort is to converge WirelessHART with the existing ISA100.11a-2009, which was never approved by ANSI, and which will be different than ISA100.11a-2010.
The worst case scenario here is that wireless field devices may get relegated to the marginal applications they have always been used on: rotating machinery instead of slip rings, remote transmitters in pipeline SCADA systems and environmental monitoring systems, and some others. If end-users start considering alternatives to wireless in process plants, there are two: wired HART with multiplexers and Foundation Fieldbus. My end-user survey revealed that at current pricing for wireless devices, those options are finding great favor.
The people who are in control here are the end-users. But they have to stand up and stick together, and insist that there needs to be an honest convergence effort between WirelessHART, ISA100, and the WIA standard, if possible. One of the respondents to my ISA100 survey said, “Technically there is no issue. Both base specs were developed under the same premise. One is constrained only by the applications layer that was adopted. The base networking is almost the same. The better answer is can the supplier community ever come together to meet the users expectations?”
I contend that they can, if the end-users make them. The majority of end-users basically ignored the Fieldbus War, and wound up with an 8-headed hydra of a standard…and then they proceeded to not adopt the products based on the fact that there were so many standards they couldn’t decide. The same thing can happen to wireless standards.
Recognize that ISA100 isn’t a compromise standard—it is just one of the four or five standards that will be being fought over for the next ten years. There are differences between ISA100 and IEC62591 WirelessHART, but on balance, they do the same things, and WirelessHART already has over 1400 end-users who’ve installed systems. Even though my survey indicated that many end-users are doubtful of the value of the “stranded data” in existing HART transmitters, most observers feel that once it is possible to easily extract and use that data, it will be seen as extremely valuable. Yes, it is possible to extract the data and transmit it over a network that isn’t WirelessHART—but the majority of end-users want something simple and a no-brainer to use, and they may perceive that as “too hard to do.”
Some end-users are working very hard to make convergence work. Some vendor companies are, too, and you might be surprised to learn who the two most active in trying to seek compromise are. But convergence isn’t going to happen unless the end-users require it. So how can end-users band together to force the vendors to the compromise table?
Come on, you know what it will take. So either do it, or get happy with the idea that there will be five standards for you to select from and bet your career on.