From Exotic to Everyday

Feb. 8, 2012
Industrial Networking Celebrates Its 10th Birthday. How Does the Industrial Networking Landscape Look Today Compared With When We First Launched in 2002?
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Maybe it's just me, but lately years seem to be going by as fast as months and even weeks used to do. Where a decade once seemed like a lifetime, now it's just a couple more seasons, holidays and birthdays zipping by in a blur. So, while it's no surprise that the industrial networking landscape looks much the same as it did when Industrial Networking launched in Spring 2002, many differences have emerged as our quarterly magazine celebrates its 10th birthday this year. Overall, some formerly unusual and seemingly unapproachable technologies—Ethernet, wireless and Internet-enabled networking—have become familiar and gained many friends.

For instance, back in the first "First Bit" column in Spring 2002, Editor Dave Fusaro lamented the "biggest industrial slowdown in recent memory" as a difficult time to start a new magazine, but he said Industrial Networking was committed to "helping you evaluate, design, implement and optimize networked systems in industrial environments," and we still use these four pillars to organize our articles today.

In that issue's "E Pluribus Unum" cover article, then-Senior Technical Editor Paul Studebaker reported that plant-floor engineers were pushing to combine many networks into one, and that Ethernet might fulfill this unifying role if it could extricate itself from its multi-flavored proprietary baggage at the application layer, which it's still trying to do.

Meanwhile, Joe Feeley, Senior Technical Editor at the time, reported in "Wired for Safety" that the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) was revising and harmonizing its NFPA-79 safety networking standard with Europe's EN 60204 standard, which later helped the NFPA to allow safety and regular operations communications on the same physical network and controllers in 2007.

In the "Cut the Cord" cover article in Fall 2002, Senior Technical Editor Dan Hebert reported that users contemplating wireless networking worried whether it could be reliable enough, but once these concerns were addressed, wireless enabled them to use networking in many applications where it wasn't possible before, including in intelligent, motorized conveyor vehicles, such as those built by Ward Ventures in Grass Valley, Calif.

[pullquote]Following years of covering squabbles over fieldbuses and adoption of the eight-headed IEC 61158 fieldbus standard, the "Packets" news section in the Spring 2003 issue reported that the Fieldbus Foundation, HART Foundation and Profibus Nutszerorganisation were cooperating to standardize the specification for electronic device description language (EDDL) for characteristics of network devices. Similarly, in Summer 2006, the OPC Foundation launched its OPC Unified Architecture (UA) with a common data model for communicating between plant-floor and enterprise systems. In Summer 2007, the EDDL team began working with the Field Device Tool (FDT) group.

In essence, all of these shifts reflected the growing pains and solutions that have gone along with the emergence of Ethernet and Internet-enabled networking over the past 10 years. Sadly, similar squabbles continue between organizers of the WirelessHART and ISA 100 standards over wireless, but hopefully compromise will happen here, too.

Besides covering high-level communication protocols and related issues, Industrial Networking has regularly reported on how to diagnose and fix basic cabling, connector and other hardware issues. For example, Fusaro's "Five Common Problems With Wiring and Connections" in Fall 2002 explained how expert users handle vibration and loose wiring, electrical interference, moisture and corrosion, labeling and identification, and flexibility and stress. And, in Fall 2003, he reported in "Fiberoptics Pass Acid Test" how Germany-based Varta Batteries used fiberoptic cabling and VF-45 connectors to prevent corrosion problems caused by its highly acidic manufacturing process.

It's still hard to know how widely dispersed different readers and control engineers are on the industrial network learning curve, but I think more are on the side of acceptance and knowing they must update to the most useful combination of fieldbuses, Ethernet and wireless from traditional point-to-point, 4–20 mA wiring. So, while it's been a pretty wild 10-year ride up to now, the coming decade looks like it's going to move even quicker. No problem. I'm no doubt biased, but the reason I'm not worried is because, even though it only comes out four times per year, Industrial Networking covers its field better than many monthly publications. Thorough coverage is the antidote for accelerated times.