Wireless Mills Grind Exceeding Slow

July 10, 2008
Developing a Family of Universal Industrial Wireless Standards

The latest step in the painfully slow progress towards agreement on a single wireless standard for automation is the creation of a new subcommittee to address options for the convergence of the forthcoming ISA100.11a and existing WirelessHART standards. And if you thought that that had been agreed last autumn, you would have been right in principal. It’s just taken another eight months to get this far, despite ISA itself describing the move as “a key step in the mission … to develop a family of universal industrial wireless standards designed to satisfy the needs of end users across a variety of applications.”

Co-chairs of the new subcommittee are Paul Sereiko of Airsprite and Dick Caro of CMC Associates. Caro certainly brings standards committee experience to the task―he still bears the scars from having chaired the ISA SP 50 fieldbus committee and acted as convenor of WG6, the IEC working group on the same subject, hardly precedents the user community would like to see repeated in this context. Just how bureaucratic the whole procedure could become is indicated by the fact that the subcommittee is currently preparing the WirelessHART standard in “an ISA standard format” as a necessary preliminary to conducting its evaluations.

End-user pressure

If ISA100 has shown a certain reluctance to move on the convergence issue, they’ve been pressured into taking action by a determined group of heavyweight users, including Procter & Gamble, ExxonMobil and Shell Global Solutions, who have clearly been exasperated by its failure fully to embrace WirelessHART. Procter & Gamble’s Jim Reizner, who co-chairs the End User Working Group, made it clear that end users’ “ultimate goal is to have a single industry standard for process applications. We are pleased that a path is developing to achieve that goal and that interim steps for achieving interoperable practical experience with both standards have been identified.”

The subcommittee’s declared objective is to contrast and compare the technology within the two standards and, building on experience gained with each, ultimately to merge the best of both into a single converged subsequent release of the ISA standard. What’s worrying about that is that it appears to back-track on earlier suggestions that WirelessHART could be adopted en bloc into ISA100 as it stands and extends virtually indefinitely the uncertainty over its status. Indeed, it must raise the suspicion that at least some interested parties see it as a means of kicking the whole issue into the long grass in the hope that it will eventually be overtaken by events.

Judge for yourself―or read between the lines of―the two statements included in the ISA press release from representatives of the two principal protagonists in what has been described as the “Wireless War.”

First Emerson’s Jose Gutierrez: “We look forward to the prospects of evaluating WirelessHART for convergence within ISA100 and remain committed to the timely approval of the ISA100.11a standard in 2008.”

Second Honeywell’s Dave Kaufman: “We remain committed to the final release of an approved ISA100.11a standard and to the subsequent collaborative evaluation of WirelessHART within the ISA100 family of universal wireless standards.”

It’s that word “subsequent” that’s making us all uneasy.