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Accepting Freebies

Aug. 5, 2010
Many End Users, Integrators and Even Suppliers with Parallel or Competing Products Use Free Tools, to Provide Some Backup or Support for Their Own Solution
By Jim Montague, Executive Editor

Sorry to be a stick in the mud, but I'm always suspicious of good news. And I know that I'm not the only one.

Practically every industrial networking and software-related story I've reported and written has some element of "the plant-floor guys and the IT guys need to sit down, talk things out and learn to work together." And live happily ever after in a little cottage by the sea. What a crock.

The fact is that canyons of misunderstanding still divide most IT technicians from most plant automation and controls engineers. Despite all the happy talk about collaboration, each side retains vastly different histories, cultures, languages, mindsets and missions. And, sorry to stereotype, but the controls engineers are old, and the IT techs are young.

Certainly, some IT and plant-floor staffs have been shoved together a lot more closely lately. And, yes, there has been some useful cross-pollination. However, it's usually because so many of their co-workers have been laid off or retired that the survivors' job descriptions have mushroomed to the point that they overlap more often than not. Not exactly a match made in heaven. Boy, where's my shotgun?

Unfortunately, one characteristic that many IT and plant-floor engineers share is they often appear reluctant to talk to other people for longer than a few minutes—especially if it's someone unfamiliar. I've been told that many of them would rather buy a module to translate and communicate for them, whether it's for data transfers or for interpersonal relations.

Perhaps it's because of its older, slower hardware-based history, but every component in process control and automation seems to have a price. Conversely, perhaps it's because of its more recent, faster-evolving history, and the fact that software is pretty much intangible anyway, but IT seems to have many tools that are free or close to it.

Likewise, over the years, I often hear of software programmers writing blocks of code and then sending them out to friends, colleagues, clients and other groups in their professional community to try out, test and provide constructive feedback. Of course, the ultimate examples of this shareware or freeware include the Linux operating system, Mozilla/Firefox search engine, Google's free programs such as Earth and SketchUp and many others.

Similarly, as the IT world has surrounded and descended on the plant floor, these kinds of software are flowing into available niches on the plant floor. While researching this month's cover article on network software, "Keep Your Network Healthy," p12, I kept running across a growing number of these free network evaluation and management tools. In fact, many end users, integrators and even suppliers with parallel or competing products eagerly use these free tools, most notably to provide some backup or support for their own solutions. When you're checking industrial networks, it seems you can't have too much reassurance.

For example, Dan Schaffer and Ken Austin at Phoenix Contact gave me a short hit parade of their favorite freeware for networking: 

There's even plenty of online instruction and advice available, which also is pretty much free, so take a few minutes and check some of them out.

Yes, I know you get what you pay for. However, there also is kindness and friendliness in the world, you can't buy love, and the best things in life are, well, you know. Just lock up that shotgun, so you don't trip over it while enjoying the cottage.

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