What a Difference a Decade Makes

Most Things Wear Out Their Welcomes Over Long Periods of Time, but Plant-Network Technology Takes Longer to Get a Foot on the Floor

Mike BacidoreBy Mike Bacidore, Managing Editor

Time is relative.

When it comes to automation and networks, 10 years is an eternity. But sometimes it takes that long for a new technological innovation to gain enough traction to get over the hill of widespread acceptance.

In 1998, our sibling Control Design ran a cover story called “Tomorrow’s Technologies Identified,” in which several industry experts took a look at the industrial-automation landscape and explained the new cutting-edge technologies that were finding their way into plant and controls engineers’ tool chests.

Some of them were flashes that either morphed quickly into the next evolutionary step or never really found an application to leverage their technology. Over the same period of time, other technologies have become part of the vernacular.

For example, in the 1998 article, Dr. Carl Talbott, an active leader in the Machinery Information Management Open Systems Alliance, promoted device condition monitoring from the end-user’s perspective. “There are too many costs involved with just waiting for equipment to die,” he said. And so predictive device monitoring was hatched. Technologies like Rockwell Automation’s IQ PreAlert, touted as the first “smart” motor, which analyzed motor condition data 10 years ago, are now just part of a grander system of monitoring and diagnostics that can be done anywhere, anytime. But that egg didn’t lay itself.

Thin-clients, the 1998 story warned, had internal logic, but very little storage, leaving them incapable of application-processing, and so they’ve never made much of an impact on the manufacturing and control segment of our industrial networking world, but not because of the concerns about data-capture bandwidth expressed in the article.

However, in 1998, two topics were identified as the next big things—Ethernet and wireless.

Ethernet’s IT heritage quickly ushered it onto the plant floor. “Faced with too many proprietary and standard control networks, some users are exploring Ethernet for control applications,” the article explained. And Rich Mullen, senior analyst at what is now ARC Advisory Group, said: "The growing acceptance of industry-standard information technology (IT) is improving Ethernet's chance of becoming the backbone of future high-speed control and device networks."

Where Ethernet’s acceptance was ninja-like in its remarkably silent and swift adoption, wireless devices and networks still await broad implementation in discrete manufacturing, despite their continued spread throughout process-industry applications.

“It's a stretch to think your customers will be telling you to interface your machine with its wireless network in 1998,” the article reported, “but the technology may be emerging, although it may take time to gain noticeable, standardized, application strength.”

Again, time is relative.

Ten years from now, how much of what we identify now about the emerging industrial-network technologies will still be works in progress, will have evolved into broader advancements or will have died on the vine?
According to the industry veterans I interviewed for our cover story on what had the greatest effect on industrial networks this year, it wasn’t the latest bleeding-edge technology that will revolutionize the way data travels around a plant floor. It never is, they told me. These things take time—that and a base of early adopters and ardent proponents.

Power over Ethernet, for example, finally has found some traction and still is gaining ground. Inter-organization agreements and disputes have been the yin and yang of standards and protocols, making interoperability more than a vendor sales pitch on many fronts and yet heightening the purchasing apprehension of many engineers, like those OEMs waiting on wireless, for fear of implementing the Betamax equivalent of devices. But the big news is the potential development that seems so likely and so obvious in hindsight—the convergence of IT and manufacturing. Back in 1998, Mullen explained: “Since Ethernet is already the network of choice at the business level, its presence at the control level will make sensor-to-boardroom integration easier."

Manufacturing and IT have indeed converged. Ethernet has put them on the same cable, and the 2.4 GHz frequency standard has forced them to validate coexistence of wireless networks. But convergence is not harmonious fusion. This will still take time.

And, as we know, time is relative.