A standard reaction

Are standards fundamentally a good thing? Editor in Chief Joe Feeley doesn’t believe we’re likely to see an uprising of enthusiasm to return to the black-box era, but he'd like to hear what you think.

By Joe Feeley, Editor in Chief

WHEN SOMEONE offers me food for thought, I sometimes end up with an upset stomach. As a result, I’m a little cautious about serving it up to readers very often. This month I want to drop an issue on you and ask you to react. Consistent with our mission here, I’d rather get a consensus of thought from you, instead of pushing an opinion just because I have the means to do so.

The issue is industry standards. Our brief history of automation and controls takes us from its origins in proprietary, single-vendor solutions, through the early lies and deceptions of what plug-and-play was supposed to be, to the current state of open-architectures and protocols, where evidence of compliance with and adherence to standards is a big part of every automation supplier’s offering.

The question is: are standards fundamentally a good thing? I can be accused of exaggerating here, but standards might be the child that neither parent thinks really is theirs. They can’t talk about it, mind you, but they have an idea.

Believe me, I’m not even sure how to get my arms around this issue to properly frame it for you. I decided to raise the question because, lately, there are a few more hushed whispers and quiet grumblings than usual—from vendors and users alike—about how they’ve known all along that a standards-based solution just isn’t as good as a “proprietary” alternative.

Of course, since this position might be subject to outrageous misinterpretation, vendors publicly stand next to the standards premise, pretty much endorse all of them, and smile like a doting parent.

I’ve mentioned this to a few officials in industry standards organizations, and they turn a little pale, while politely implying that I’m nuts to even bring it up.

Here’s the premise to consider. A standards-derived solution is a compromise. Consequently, while seeking to become a workable, common solution for many disparate companies, does it leave maximum performance off the to-do list?

In machine automation today, the need to continually provide better performance, reliability, and ease of use weighs heavily on most industrial OEMs with moderate to complex machine control needs. I’m not sure that “best-in-class” solution means what it used to mean. Will the only way to effectively accomplish this daunting performance need turn out to be a migration back to tightly focused, single-vendor proprietary solutions?

It’s accurate to say that many of today’s standards, de facto or otherwise, evolved out of proprietary sources. Did they become weaker when that happened?

I’m not saying this realistically pertains to everything. Standards seem to have a place in protecting investments, and providing solutions that have a reassuring critical mass of vendor support. They have provided a common means to move data across existing disparate systems. Is that the answer? Is the value of standards that you avoid dynamiting it all and starting from scratch? Have we concluded that there’s no better way? Is it more sensible to provide a 75% solution that’s reusable, rather than deal with the headaches of trying to build the best mouse trap? How much of this is simply because the time and resources available to users today are limited, creating more reliance on the more readily obtainable standard solution?

I don’t think this means we’re likely to see an uprising of enthusiasm to return to the black-box era, but I need to hear what you think about this. I’ll pass those perspectives along to the rest of Machine Builder Nation in upcoming issues.

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