Recently my wife and I rented a car for a short interstate trip. It was a 2014 model of modest cost, though we were pleasantly welcomed, yet not surprised, by its generous USB ports, to which we were able to connect our cellphones and my iPod. Our experience of being able to plug and play all of our devices was relatively new because I drive an eight-year-old car (a sports sedan with a peppy V6 I still love) which requires a cigarette-lighter adapter cable to power one phone at a time in addition to an OEM cord with a bulky proprietary connector to tether the iPod -- a cable that’s now useless because it’s no longer supported.
When consumer electronics companies -- with regulatory body intervention -- years ago agreed to (mostly) stop the proprietary connector madness and adopt universal open-standard interfaces, we benefited from forward compatibility and interoperability, first in the home, then outside, and then in our cars. If the industrial automation and control industry had been able to achieve even some semblance of what transpired in consumer electronics, end users wouldn’t have had to deal for years with myriad implementation challenges from as many as 15 competing network protocol options, or be forced to go with restrictive homogenous vendor and platform environments, instead of being able to freely mix and match gear. The old fieldbus war would’ve been smartly avoided.
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Of course, the industrial automation war happened. Companies aimed to stake their claims on the market first, thinking their protocols could dominate. Then, as strength came in numbers, factions coalesced around competing protocols and device networks. Vendors then had to support multiple platforms.
The battles spilled from fieldbus networking to eventual wireless networking until the standards bodies finally got together and established unifying frameworks. Today industrial Ethernet is an alphabet soup with a handful of differing architectures, descended from the universal IEEE 802.3 standard, and the OPC Foundation, for one, manages an interoperability standard to get everybody to handshake (if not bury the hatchet) for the sake of automation customers.
As IoT creeps from dawn to sunrise, the godfathers Cisco, Intel, IBM, AT&T, and GE are trying to preempt history from repeating itself once again. Thanks to the growing convergence of the IT, networking, and automation worlds, they’re now involved in the IIoT fray and have established the sandbox called the Industrial Internet Consortium, in an attempt to get industry members together and playing nicely at the start of the smart industrial automation and connectivity era. The IIC in June released its first technical document describing a reference architecture for data management, security, and interoperability for the Industrial Internet, with frameworks and requirements for standards.
The group has publicly stated that it’s not another standards body. In an interview with Design News earlier this year, CTO Stephen Mellor said the IIC will be a liaison to standards organizations and other groups and that its focus is cooperation and collaboration, because there’s too much to do to compete. An IIC blog explained that the reference architecture would encourage reuse of common building blocks and enable easier sharing of system creation know-how and that vendors would have a blueprint to build interoperable, market-fitting products, noting, “A successful open reference architecture for the Industrial Internet could be a first step towards an open, innovative, and thriving common technology development environment for the industrial sectors.”
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Clearly, this is a step in the right direction to potentially avoid another drawn-out industrial communications protocol war. And it's occurring against what looks like a brewing battle over connection standards in the consumer IoT space. Industrial automation users don’t need to wade through a thick “Grandson of Fieldbus” brush, if industrial Ethernet can be described as “Son of Fieldbus.”
But this obviously remains to be seen. With something this big and far-reaching as the Industrial Internet, the IIC’s journey to its goal of multivendor plug-and-play interoperability -- where machines and devices seamlessly talk with each other -- and low-cost, smooth experiences for automation users will inevitably face conflicting priorities and stakeholder needs. Direction will be influenced by the discovery of testbed results and new gaps in the IIoT fabric.
However, if this effort picks up traction with the speed that’s needed for a universal commonality endeavor, expect the formats that don’t follow the reference architecture -- be they established or even those that might be making headway now -- to wither at the side of the platforms that do, even though the IIC doesn’t make anyone comply. Weaned on the relatively effortless connectivity of today’s massive variety of consumer electronic products, automation users in the IIoT will likely not tolerate too many competing, piecemeal standards for long.
Time and time again in our technological history, we reach commonality when we go through an open, interactive process with the interests of the user in mind, one which stimulates the pace of standards adoption and rallies wide-ranging parties to cooperate.
Editor-in-Chief William Ng has been in business journalism for more than 15 years, many of which have been devoted to covering manufacturing, technology, and industry.
[image source: Ambro at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]