01 February 2004
Across the fieldbuses
By Owen Rooney
Today's end users and suppliers in the automation industry are aware of the benefits that a common engineering tool can bring to their day-to-day activities of parameterization, maintenance, configuration, and operation of field devices. However, with the numerous devices and communication protocols on the market, having such a luxury oftentimes means locking in with a single supplier.
Such a scenario is not good for end users, as it does not allow them freedom to choose whatever device best fits their needs. One solution to this problem has been the introduction of the field device tool (FDT) technology. The concept originated in Europe; however since its official launch into the North American market at the ISA Expo 2002, the standard has made significant inroads not only with suppliers but also with end users.
This was evident in the profile of visitors to the FDT joint interest group (JIG) booth at this year's ISA Expo 2003 in Houston. The North American marketing representative for the FDT JIG, Nick Zucchero explains, "The take-away this year is that the end user recognizes the benefits of the FDT technology and they want it. We had visitors from a range of industries within process, factory, and hybrid industries, and it was clear to them that FDT could solve a lot of their ongoing problems and reduce their overall costs."
Zucchero goes on to explain that the "FDT technology enables control systems manufacturers, like Invensys, to solve real problems for end users. The ability to provide the end user with a single engineering environment to configure, commission, and manage field assets lowers the total cost of ownership for the end user and creates enormous competitive advantage for the control systems manufacturer. In addition the control systems manufacturer is able to progressively lower long-term product maintenance costs by only having to sustain one field device engineering software suite to manage the life cycle of any device, from any manufacturer, on any fieldbus protocol in the control system."
End users seek a standard interface that connects any automation system to any device, allowing them the freedom to choose the best fit for their application, irrespective of supplier or communication protocol. They want an open interface to access all the information available in intelligent field devices, even the most complex ones. Such a solution must be able to migrate with the state-of-the-art technologies so that the investment remains valuable in the future.
FDT is a viable solution for these valid issues. Many automation suppliers are now writing their device type managers (DTMs) (manufacturers add a piece of software called a device type manager to their individual field devices).
So, they can interface with many of the major automation systems. Such leveling of the playing field can be only good news for the device vendor and the customer, in that more resources reinvest into the features of the device to differentiate it from the competition. The customer will be able to source the device that best suits his or her needs and seamlessly integrate it into the existing physical environment and the asset management system.
The technology also lends itself well to migration to newer technologies. The migration from COM to .NET has been very topical in the automation field, and FDT-related products are already available in .NET. For example, there are software companies supplying DTMs in .NET as well as containers.
These solutions can also communicate with COM technology, as the vast majority of FDT solutions in the field are COM based, therefore investment is preserved. With the increasing demand for Web-enabled technologies in the field this is an important step for FDT, and this is evident in the marketplace.
In addition there will be an FDT-based handheld solution, available soon, which provides the engineer with more flexibility in configuration and maintenance activities. The FDT handheld provides the benefit of a single engineering environment to move closer to the field.
Companies such as ABB, Invensys, Metso Automation, E+H, and Omron already offer FDT-enabled products and complete system solutions.
When investment resources are scarce, for a new technology to be successful it is vital to have tools available that allow suppliers to easily embrace the technology into their existing software offerings. There are quite a number of companies that provide products and services to help vendors realize their FDT strategy quickly and with minimal expense.
This is becoming more important, as vendors see in request-for-quote (RFQ) activities that many end users are stipulating that devices have a DTM to facilitate ease of integration into an existing engineering system.
At the recent general assembly of the FDT JIG in Basel, there were more than 30 companies represented, including some well-known U.S. names. Rockwell Automation has become a member of the FDT JIG as well as OMRON and Woodhead.
North American support of FDT/DTM technology by major automation companies is growing as evidenced by the presence of Invensys, Honeywell, Rockwell, Tyco, and Yokogawa at the FDT JIG General Assembly. One of the main objectives resulting at the assembly was to increase the penetration and acceptance of the technology in the North American marketplace, and the group intends to do this by forging alliances with the various fieldbus organizations and technical groups in the U.S.
For example, the OPC Foundation and FDT JIG have recently formed a joint technical working group to develop and explore the synergies of the technologies for the benefit of the end user.
The FDT JIG has made impressive inroads since the group formalized, and more importantly the end user is now becoming aware of the benefits of the technology.
For a more detailed explanation of FDT technology read www.isa.org/journals/intech/fdt_abb.pdf. IT
Owen Rooney has degrees in information management and marketing. He is the general manager of M&M Software in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Nicholas Sheble writes and edits the Networking & Communications department. Write him at email@example.com.
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