Wireless avoids history’s mistakes

18 January 2008

Wireless providers and standards groups are moving forward rapidly and, perhaps surprisingly, seem to be working together. With potentially costly and damaging battles avoided, at least for now, Peter Welander, process industries editor of Control Engineering, reports on wireless today.

Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but it looks like wireless providers and standards groups may actually be working together to create useful standards for wireless instrumentation and control networks, avoiding some of the problems of the “fieldbus wars.” Moreover, this co-operation may actually save you money and aggravation. Here’s what we’ve seen lately.

WirelessHART is already in place and equipment built under this protocol will soon be available, bringing interoperability at the device level from a wide range of suppliers. This protocol, developed relatively early in the larger wireless instrumentation history, will have a huge influence on what follows. Any company that ignores WirelessHART is taking a major risk of marginalising itself with a proprietary technology.

At the same time, WirelessHART is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and there are other applications where, for higher bandwidth or other control issues, it doesn’t fill the bill. For those, ISA100 is working to create a standard with wider scope. ISA promises that ISA100 “will allow you to deploy a single, integrated wireless infrastructure platform for your plant. The standard network will simultaneously communicate with many existing application protocols wirelessly throughout your plant. This includes protocols such as HART, Foundation Fieldbus, Modbus, Profibus, Common Industrial Protocol and more.”

“The ISA100-WirelessHART Analysis Team is evaluating how the protocol can be incorporated into the ISA100.11a standard while remaining consistent with the objectives of the ISA100 family of standards,” says ISA100 co-chair Pat Schweitzer of Exxon Mobil. “The most important part of that evaluation is the obligation to continue our commitment to the end user, and we’re confident that our final decisions will accomplish that goal.” The ISA100.11a working group will be meeting in February, during the ARC Orlando Forum.

If that’s not enough to convince you, consider that HART, Profibus, and Foundation Fieldbus have agreed to collaborate on wireless technology in manufacturing and process industries. In a press release, the group says it has “agreed to develop a specification for a common interface to a wireless gateway. The organisations have also agreed to base their work on the WirelessHART technology and the emerging ISA100.11a standard. The project shall develop use cases, requirements, and specifications for wireless communication with intelligent field devices in process measurement and control applications in the automation industries. The goal of the co-operative project shall be to create a common specification while ensuring complete compatibility with the existing wired versions of each participant’s technology.”
Full scale interoperability is still a long way off, but the movement is in the right direction and it promises to serve customers best. The desire for interoperability is better than the desire for creating a platform that one company believes is ideal even though it will work with no other systems. That path has been all too well trod in the past. Perhaps as an industry we’re beyond that point. Wouldn’t that be nice?


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