The Nice Thing About Standards

Feb. 10, 2011
The Burden of the Costs of Working With Multiple Standards Is Placed on the Shoulders of End Users
By Walt Boyes, Editor in Chief

Professor Andrew Tanenbaum famously said, "The nice thing about standards is that you have so may to choose from."  Clearly this cynical attitude is the one many automation vendors take toward producing systems that conform to standards. The problem with this attitude, and with the products that are fostered by it is that the entire burden of the costs of working with multiple standards is placed squarely on the shoulders of end users worldwide. This is not a new thing. ISA50 became the standard-less standard that spawned the Fieldbus Wars. There are dozens of implementations of ISA88 and ISA95 that aren't exactly according to Hoyle. And, of course, there is the embarrassing case of ISA100.

For over a year now, the end users have been speaking very loudly for convergence between ISA100.11a (which has not yet been accepted as an ANSI standard, let alone an international standard by the IEC) and IEC62591, which is the only internationally accepted field device wireless standard. IEC62591 is better known as WirelessHART.

Martin Schwibach, of BASF, and chairman of NAMUR Working Group 4.15 Wireless Automation, put it extremely well in a recent post to the ISA100 mailing list. "NAMUR users are supporting very strongly the convergence process, as only a unified standard will be, from NAMUR's point of view, the basis for sustainable multi-vendor use cases." Schwibach is not alone. Other end users have said much the same thing. For years now.

It appears, however, that the management and editorial team of ISA100 (Working Group 3), don't seem to care very much about that. They told ISA100.12 that they didn't want its activities to interfere with the fast-tracking of ISA100.11a, and since ISA100.12 hadn't finished its report, the .11a committee was justified in ignoring anything that had to do with convergence.

ISA100.12 expects to have those recommendations available after February's face-to-face meeting. But in their hurry to establish ISA100.11a as a standard, the committee management has already taken it to committee-wide ballot, which passed. So, no convergence for you, end users. Bad, bad, no biscuit.

[pullquote]But, you know, it isn't only the fault of vendors who want to shortsightedly push their own proprietary agendas as a pseudo-standard. It is also the fault of end users, who have sat back and complained in user group meetings and in social situations, but who haven't made it clear to the ISA100 committee that they want a single standard or they'll vote with their feet. But they're walking!

Data that I've compiled indicate that there are already well over $100 million worth of IEC62591 devices in the field. Estimates are that that number will rise to above $500 million by the end of this year. As Josef Stalin reportedly said, "Quantity has a quality all of its own."

ISA100 will unnecessarily complicate the standards situation for wireless field devices, but it won't slow down the global migration to IEC62591 (WirelessHART). That ship has sailed.

I can only add my voice to NAMUR and to the other end users, who have been begging the ISA100 committee to achieve convergence.

Wireless field device sales are incremental revenue to the billions of dollars you vendors have been making in the automation industry. The more barriers  you  set up between you and your end users' dollars mean that that revenue will grow slower than if you made it easy for them to decide to go wireless. This has always struck me as a no-brainer. Obviously, some vendors disagree with me. They appear to be devotees of Tanenbaum's Law.
Bad vendors. No biscuit for you either!