Everyone knows “The Sound of Music,” but fewer people recall lines like, "When the Lord closes a door, somewhere he opens a window," or when Capt. Von Trapp says, "I don't want to hear anymore from you about my children," and Maria says, "I know you don't, but you've got to!"
Bits like this pop up when I'm seeking the best words for stories in Control, including this month's "Prepare for liftoff" cover article on ExxonMobil, Lockheed Martin and the Open Process Automation (OPA) forum, and their valiant project to develop an interoperable process control and automation system.
I covered their efforts and presentations a few weeks ago at ARC Advisory Group's Industry Forum, and it’s amazing how well-organized OPA and its members are and how much momentum the interoperability movement has this time. They may well push through the barriers and snags that wrecked earlier attempts at achieving common fieldbus and wireless standards.
However, OPA and its organizers also seem well aware that they need large numbers of process industry end users to join their cause, help maintain their momentum, and add their voices to the call for interoperability until they become loud enough to finally make it real.
Users are the key to interoperability's success or failure because OPA is also being joined by numerous helpful suppliers, who no doubt have the best intentions, but could easily swamp even this latest stab at true openness if they aren't balanced by an equally large tribe of users.
Earlier interoperability efforts started out strong, too. However, the reason they faltered and weakened is because they dithered too long over details and language, until many users eventually dropped out, and only suppliers remained to push their shorter-sighted, corporate-driven efforts to preserve their market shares.
Ironically, to hold suppliers' feet to the interoperability fire, users must get close enough to hold their own feet to that fire first—and then pull everyone else into the pool and a brighter future. But, to make this happen, users will have to give up some much-cherished habits, which were and are still useful in technical settings, but are holding them back when it comes to achieving interoperability and other worthwhile goals.
With real interoperability at stake, process control engineers can no longer afford to always be the second adopter, and can't wait for someone else to try and fail first. This time, they have to be on the bleeding edge. They must, gasp, throw off the "if it's not broke, don't fix it" attitude.
Of course, users must stay conservative and cautious when it comes to running their critical process applications and keep themselves, their co-workers, equipment and facilities safe. However, everyone can take a few more chances, and stick their necks out a little further when it comes to investigating new and potentially helpful technologies such as those that interoperability can deliver. In fact, interoperability can greatly improve all of the usual process automation goals. All it takes is a little get up and go to join OPA, though it will take more commitment to keep its sails full for the long haul. I think ExxonMobil showed its commitment by announcing March 6 that it will spend $20 billion to upgrade and expand process manufacturing along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
It's natural to worry that efforts like the push for interoperability won't succeed, and that a lot of effort will again be wasted. However, I've personally witnessed the fact that faith in organizing is justified because people always affect a much wider circle in their communities than they realize.
Oh, and since everyone's marching these days and because engineers are pretty much scientists anyway, you might want to check out the March for Science on April 22, and go to Washington, D.C., or one of the local events.
In her "I Have Confidence" song, also in The Sound of Music, Maria sings, "And while I show them, I'll show me!" Engineers can do the same, and OPA is a great place to start.
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