1 March 2002
Shining future for plug and play
by Perry Sink Marshall
You needn't succumb to vicious price wars if you offer products that TRULY interoperate.
Fifteen years ago, a good VCR or home CD player cost $400 or more. Five years ago, they cost $150 to $200. Everyone and his cousin got a DVD player for Christmas this year; mine cost less than $150, and some units cost as little as $100.
DVD players have driven the price of CD players into the ground, and $50 to $80 buys you a VCR with a remote control. The technology is 20 years old, and vendors have wrung the profit out of it like a dishrag. Similarly, Ethernet cards cost $20. Office-grade Ethernet switches cost $100. No profit in that, unless you're selling millions of 'em.
Many of you have an Ethernet LAN at home. You upgraded to DSL or cable, and a few hours later, two or three computers and printers were sharing files and surfing the Web. It cost only a few hundred bucks, and most importantly, it was easier than you expected.
This raises dangerous questions in automation, like: "If I can wire my house with a 100-Mbps network for 300 bucks, and if my kid can play Quake on the Internet with some kid in Singapore, why won't your bar-code reader talk to my $1,000 PLC?" That's an ugly question because as soon as all the bar-code readers can talk to all the PLCs, then the brand of PLC will matter even less.
Open networking drives everyone toward commoditization, and the PLC vendors have been dragging their feet on industrial Ethernet. They're terrified because they know Ethernet is driving prices down and expectations up.
USERS AT HELM
In automation, there's ample justification for spending a lot more to get industrial-grade hardware. And in pure business terms, the price of a good control system is absolutely, trivially cheap in relation to what it actually does. Still, the days of the $1,500 network card are over. Analogous situations exist everywhere else in the industry: controllers, I/O, HMI, you name it.
While the big boys want to make Ethernet happen as slowly as possible, users will not allow them to do what they did five years ago: continue with years of debate about the perfect fieldbus.
Nobody's interested in watching the Profinet guy debate the Foundation fieldbus HSE guy for 21/2 pages in some control magazine. One obvious sign is in the support behind the cooperative efforts among various groups like OPC, ODVA, and IAONA.
Besides, in Ethernet there's nothing to stop you from having all the protocols running simultaneously, such that you simply don't care which one you're using.
After all, that's how it works on your PC-you really don't care if it's .DOC or .RTF, .HTML, or .PDF, as long as the software allows you to open the file.
Is there an advantage to proprietary systems? Why do people use Windows instead of Linux? After all, Linux is free.
I know the answer to that question. I tried it myself, and it was difficult to install, with a limited number of desktop applications available. And though I sincerely like it and think it's fantastic for some people and situations, free or not, it's not nearly as accessible as Windows. Much of this benefit stems from the fact that Windows is proprietary.
So can the PLC vendors hang on to their turf the way Microsoft has hung on to Windows? Or will we be buying $59 disposable PLCs at Wal-Mart, right next to the thermostats and automatic sprinkler systems?
That all depends on how they approach some pretty "mundane" problems. When you plug your digital camera into the USB port, your PC recognizes it, and you can transfer photos in seconds. When you put a new PC on the network, you can surf the Web in just a few minutes. And you can mix and match just about anything, as long as you know where to download the drivers.
Integration and ease of use are precisely the weapons Apple is using against Microsoft with its new iMac.
The convergence of video, audio, and PC demands even tighter integration than you get from the Wintel stuff, the company says, so here's the ultimate multimedia machine. It ain't cheap, and it's not going to overthrow Bill Gates' empire any time soon. But you can bet it'll steal some market share from Redmond with this one.
PLC vendors, take your cue from Steve Jobs. You needn't succumb to vicious price wars if you offer products that truly interoperate and make integration easy. But if your customers have to edit text files and buy $1,000 gateways just to talk to your serial port, they'll be slip slidin' away, singing 50 ways to leave your PLC.
The future is bright for anyone who's able and willing to make plug and play a reality in automation. IT
Behind the byline
Perry Sink Marshall is author of a forthcoming book from ISA, Industrial Ethernet Made Simple. You can e-mail him from his Web site at www.perrymarshall.com.
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