Commercial off-the-shelf technology to the rescue, again

Sept. 26, 2016
‘It lets us take and move more data, do more computing, archive more process lore, make comprehensive and complex analyses, and make better decisions,’ says Paul Studebaker.

I admit, it made me a little sick to put a Pokémon GO spoof on the cover of this issue of Control, backed up with articles about IIoT and self-driving cars. It seems like we’re being awfully trendy and, for process control, irrelevant. But I think not, and here’s why.

Though it’s been about a quarter of a century, it doesn’t seem all that long ago when everything in industrial automation was purpose-built and proprietary. From microprocessors and boards to networks and HMIs, if you wanted an industrial system, you got industrial hardware, software and services, lots of services, from one or a handful of specialized suppliers.

But as commercial and consumer applications drove exponential expansions in computing power, memory, network speeds, display size and resolution, and sensor technology, commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) technology became irresistibly powerful and cheap. Innovative and intrepid end users and small companies started adapting non-industrial equipment to industrial applications. UNIX, Windows, DEC and Dell—who in their right mind would try to run a chemical plant on that crap? Well, as it turns out, everybody. Now Ethernet, Wi-Fi, smart phones and apps are making inroads on proprietary industrial protocols and handhelds.

We use COTS technology because we want to. It lets us take and move more data, do more computing, archive more process lore, make comprehensive and complex analyses, and make better decisions, so our processes are more efficient, reliable and profitable.

[pullquote]It works because you work hard to adapt it to industrial applications, with firewalls, security, redundancy and the hooks and ladders needed to make it get along with the old hardware and systems we can’t, or can’t yet, replace. And it works because it gets better, forged by the hot demands of the consumer, financial and enterprise users who buy almost all of it, thereby underwriting its development. Then it nourishes its own ecosystems of experts, system integrators, troubleshooters, apps, accessories and tools to make the same stuff available everywhere and cheap to buy and maintain.

When we glorify the reality—today—of the sensing, computing and network systems that are making self-driving cars inevitable, it’s not just because Tesla, Google and Uber are paying to develop and make those systems available for industrial applications. They’re also training the world to have realistic expectations, forcing everyone to confront liability and moral issues, and showing millions of people that technology will lead to retraining—or else—for more than just factory workers.

The augmented reality of Pokémon GO isn’t just for the indolent and fad-obsessed; it’s the popularization of capabilities we already see in information management for commercial infrastructure, being used for asset management in industrial facilities. Virtual reality is hot on its heels, so let’s celebrate the entertainment and military sectors’ willingness to work out the bugs, so our technicians won’t be dizzy, nauseated and tripping over pipes.

[javascriptSnippet]As for IIoT, some say that it’s just SCADA on steroids with “Internet” thrown in to freak us out. But as we speak, commercial, consumer and military developers are hard at work resolving connectivity issues, and the same privacy, security and big data issues, that give us doubts.

But to go forward, we have to accept risk. COTS has issues, but people also are killed, the environment is compromised, and property is destroyed by conventional hardware, software, and human negligence and malevolence, from Deepwater Horizon to GM ignition switches, VW emission systems and 9/11. And that risk is acceptable—we just measure it in dollars and decide who will pay.

It’s how humanity rolls, and at Control, we’ll roll with it.

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