Short on Specifics

Feb. 6, 2009
Control Strives to Give Readers Specific Content They Can Use to Make Their Processes and Applications More Efficient and Make Their Stressful Jobs a Little Less So
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

The best news is the kind you can use immediately. The worst contains only vague and pretty much useless suggestions. A few trusted sources deliver the meat and potatoes you need to improve your job and well-being, while far too many others are little more than mouthfuls of steam. David Byrne, lead sinder of the Talking Heads, described this situation close to 30 years ago in the song “Psycho Killer,” in which he sang, “You’re talking a lot, but you’re not saying anything.”

Sadly, this is a very common illness. And, it’s why our stories in Control strive to give readers specific content they can use to make their processes and applications more efficient and make their stressful jobs a little less so.  Sometimes we’re more successful than others.

Now, this lack of specifics might seem benign, but I think obscuring useful facts and failing to deliver specifics is actually pretty evil. Of course, not having the right data in technical, industrial and process applications can be hazardous and downright deadly in many process control applications. However, while no lives and limbs are at stake, useless content holds readers and viewers back from the progress they might make if they had better data. It’s a slower moving kind of damage, but it’s still harmful.

Unfortunately, the occasional sub-standard magazine story isn’t the only place where nebulous hot air collects. For example, I’ve been covering industrial networking and control and automation standards for more than 10 years, and while some seem helpful and useful, others are unspecific and unprescriptive to the point of making them pretty much useless. 

I mean, how useful is a safety standard that doesn’t say much more than “you’d better design a safe industrial system,” but doesn’t tell you how to do it, and instead instructs you to get certification elsewhere? That’s not a much of a “standard.” At best, it’s more like a signpost, and at worst, it’s a complete cop out.

Now, I was a big fan of the National Fire Protection Association’s work when I covered municipal fire prevention, building codes and school life/safety issues  years ago. However, while the two most recent updates to the NFPA-79 standard reportedly allow use of “certified” safety PLCs, I’m still looking for that precise language in the online document. And, if this required certification is defined, evaluated and judged by TÜV Rhineland and others, what good is the standard?  

Likewise, IEC 61508 is laudable in its call for functional safety of electronic systems, but its language is so general that it often doesn’t seems to say more than “safety is good.” I know completely prescriptive standards are impossible because industries and applications differ so much. However, it would helpful if the folks who develop standards would put more effort into them. Thankfully, this standard’s developers eventually drafted the more succinct IEC 61511, which focuses on safety-instrumented systems (SISs) and seems to provide more useful requirements that users can implement.

While a lack of specifics might seem like laziness, and I’m sure it often is, I’ve come to realize that some fuzzy thinking seems deliberate. I watched as the original IEC 61158 fieldbus standard was injected with several influential fieldbus protocols and ballooned into the now famous eight-headed standard. This was reportedly done to give users more choices, but I still think it was done to protect several suppliers’ old technologies by keeping their users hostage. I wouldn’t be surprised if some standards—or at least their more useless parts—are intentionally designed to confuse and frighten potential users away from trying new technologies.

In the recent past, more than a few politicians, stockbrokers and bankers have been acting this same way. So while some ideological differences are real, others pull a good-faith veil over titanic examples of pure thievery, such as unnecessary wars and bank bailouts. I mean, the roaches in the kitchen would be fools to scatter before the lights come on—especially if they can keep the lights covered.