08 January 2001
New economy distracts many but can't thwart genius
Wireless networking, Ethernet speed, and smart miniaturization have industrial automation steppin' out.
Driving the instrumentation, systems, and automation business into the year 2001 is a curious combination of corporate strategy pushed by a questionable concept called the new economy and a brilliant engineering innovation that emanates from digital code and thrives on miniaturization.
The new economy has come to the fore in a paradigm shift that has added equity growth as a new economic parameter existing alongside traditional old economy considerations such as profit, revenue, dividends, and investment (research and development, or R&D).
Equity growth means to simply increase the company's stock price but not necessarily the company's worth and is in large part speculation. Investors buy the company's stock betting the price will go up. If the price increases, the investor sells and makes a profit.
New economy investors buy stocks without a thought to the dividends they might realize or whether the company even makes a profit.
Many managers and company boards of directors use the stock price as a barometer of their success. Indeed, heads roll and bonus checks arrive contingent on the organizations' equity growth. Perception, spectacle, and spin can dramatically affect equity growth. Substance is optional in the new economy.
Profit? Well . . . it might help the stock price—unless it's below an industry analyst's forecast. Profit in the new economy is optional. Market share is most important, then equity growth, then market saturation, and then profit. That is the new economy business model.
This new model influences the big boys in the controls industry, which actually do turn a profit. They seek growth through mergers, acquisitions, OEM arrangements, alliances, reengineering, rightsizing, and downsizing. Many cut their R&D for a lower cost structure today. Lean and mean is good. It's a solid image. It may create growth equity. It certainly rattles the industry cage . . . for better or worse.
The technical and engineering drivers of automation in 2001 and beyond will be the wireless, smart, and micromachined devices that so enhance efficiency, overcome time and architecture, and stretch engineering bounds to science fiction proportions.
Wireless sensing and control will not only dent new and Fortune 500 plant construction and retrofit but also enable rundown, obsolete, or third-world enterprises to bypass the current hard-wired networking gap that favors the industrialized nations. The have-lesses will be more competitive and generate better product.
Smart devices communicating openly over de facto standard Ethernet wire will become more prevalent but won't effect a digital bus protocol solution. It appears that the large networking players will all introduce respective versions of Ethernet that will differ from one another at the user layer. Yet closer, but no interchangeable cigar yet.
Smaller and smaller we'll go, and where it'll stop, no one knows. The miniaturization of the smart, the handheld, the networking, the automation, and the remote control devices will all increase flexibility and capability in production. The trend is logarithmic. Soon, devices will be too small for keyboards, and we'll see a trend to voice communication with machines.
No matter, dot.coms, dot goes. . . . The instrumentation, systems, and automation industry rests on solid foundation and is growing in a reasoned fashion. InTech welcomes you to the new century and continued technical innovation.
Hard wire leans to Ethernet
"To maintain a competitive edge, end users demand futureproof systems with the ability to incorporate technology advances as soon as they can return value. Ethernet and TCP/IP is delivering both futureproof systems and seamless advancements," said Benson Hougland, director of technical marketing at Opto 22.
"Using Ethernet and TCP/IP as the backbone of the new industrial automation network builds a solid foundation that is also a flexible platform for growth. In the coming year, Internet technologies such as XML, SMTP, and SNMP will play an even larger role with regard to how data is presented to software applications," he said.
"Coupled with HTTP and other browser protocols, these Internet-based technologies are advantageous at the outset, providing fast and easy methods for system configuration and connectivity to other plant-floor devices. Most importantly, these technologies address the larger issue of integrating with enterprisewide networks to share data in order to meet business objectives.
"Ethernet will be taken to the next level with the addition of complementary technologies such as wireless LAN. Wireless LAN builds on the performance and true openness of the Ethernet local-area networks and TCP/IP standard protocols, providing a natural extension to existing networks without the constraints of cable.
"Equipment and devices that are mobile or located in areas where network wiring is unavailable or not economical can be seamlessly monitored and controlled with equipment on the wired network. With a wireless LAN, the TCP/IP transport mechanism and application-level protocol support are identical to the wired LAN.
"Looking beyond wireless LAN is future wireless technology like Bluetooth, which is poised to become a player in the industrial space. The promise of the Bluetooth personal area network is to provide a wireless link from transmitters and sensors to an I/O aggregating system, reducing the need to run field wiring at the lowest levels.
"The bottom-line outlook for 2001 is continued growth in mainstream I/O technology that harnesses Internet and Ethernet technology, from additional software protocol support and data delivery options to the implementation of wireless networking at both the I/O system and sensor level," Hougland said.
Winds of war blow Ethernet
Not so fast, cautioned Ian Verhappen, engineering associate at Syncrude Canada. "Ethernet will soon form the industrial network backbone, but acceptance will be constrained by the different user layer flavors.
"This common protocol will allow complex automation islands such as process analyzers, PLCs, motor control centers, and even host [DCS or hybrid] systems from different manufacturers to communicate with each other.
"The fieldbus wars that were associated with S50 will now be fought again on the Ethernet front, with the lines already being drawn. How many flavors have been announced in the last year? Does the player list look at all like the one for S50? Hello. . . . ?!
"If this happens again, all bets are off, and Ethernet for the plant floor will be delayed for many years. Who loses? Everyone does because without a certain critical mass, no one can develop the technology to a profitable level.
"Let's hope we learned our lesson with S50!" Verhappen said.
"Ethernet will continue to gain industrial acceptance," said Bill Hodson, engineering fellow at Honeywell. "It will transport numerous process and discrete protocols at high speeds and Ethernet gateways will provide a degree of interoperation between the various protocols and subnetworks that support today's installed base.
"Foundation fieldbus will gain significant followers in process control because of its engineeringless interoperability and standardized, comprehensive, device-resident function blocks.
"Profibus-DP will enjoy a strong hold in the discrete automation applications due to strong corporate backing," said Hodson.
"For noncritical applications," added Jim Tatera of Dow Corning, "Ethernet will make large inroads because of its economic advantages. Its high speed will make it the dominant choice for plant information systems.
"There still are issues regarding redundancy, real-time capability, and nondeterminism that need to be addressed before it will become suitable for environmentally sensitive or high-speed, safety-sensitive applications in process control. It is important that we not let the cost benefits of Ethernet lead to safety and technical trade-offs."
The economy starts here
"The large automation and controls companies have not been growing in any real sense for the last 10 years. The situation worsened with the collapse a couple of years ago of the Asian market, and now there is increasing pressure on the stock prices of the larger companies. The end result is the combination and recombination as each of these companies have tried to find the right balance of corporate DNA to satisfy Wall Street and their stockholders," said longtime industry insider Walt Boyes.
"The problem with all of this is that the industry itself, if you analyze it closely, is actually growing. It is just not growing the way it used to. Invensys, Emerson, Honeywell, ABB, Siemens, Rockwell, and the other biggies are so large and have so much overhead that in order to show the profit dollars that the industry analysts are demanding, they've cut heavily into R&D.
"Their customers, meanwhile, aren't finding the rate of return or cost savings for installing new generations of sensors or control software worth the price. So a huge vacuum is being created, both at the user end and at the manufacturer end.
"This vacuum is being filled, as vacuums will, by the activities of very small entrepreneurial firms. These include design firms, systems integrators, OEMs, and manufacturers.
"This is quite normal. Recall that Vern Heath, founder of Rosemount, started out in a garage, as did Henry Ford. These developments all bode well for the instrumentation, systems, and automation market," Boyes said.
E-commerce spells business
Jim Pinto, something of an instrumentation industry icon and Renaissance man, weighed in, "The new age has arrived with a broad-based recognition that business is different today. The waves of change brought fear at first. . . . The initial 'deer in the headlights' syndrome. This has given way to healthy action by survivors who have recognized that business in the industrial environment has indeed changed.
"Companies will succeed by creating and structuring their own markets and offering customers innovative new ways to receive value. E-commerce provides only the technological means, the delivery mechanism. The good companies are using it creatively in ways that generate new value for all the parties involved.
"Almost universal business e-mail provides colleagues and customers with a closeness that breeds startling new effectiveness in the global village. The old, bulky snail-mail catalog is becoming obsolete, and most companies are now providing access to product and pricing information on the Web, with many going beyond to allow online purchasing and true B2B interaction.
"In the fast-moving decade ahead, the significant competitive value will be time. With accelerating technology, many products are obsolete within months, and market share is going to smaller and more agile competitors. Larger companies are under pressure, with declining sales and profit causing a wave of mergers and consolidation that will continue to change the landscape," Pinto said.
E-i-e-i-o: The three R's
Dr. Gary Funk, a technical consultant in Houston, said he regards manufacturing economics simply: "The demand driving all business and industry is the need for profits. The driving forces for change in business are competition, regulation, and societal pressures.
"The most significant and effective response by business to meeting demands and pressures is achieving productivity and flexibility. The continuing quest for productivity and flexibility is best expressed as acquiring enterprise integrated operations (EIO). The integrated operations encompass integrating the activities of individuals, areas, plants, sites, and businesses.
"Achieving productivity and flexibility is the core solution to the difficulties facing business. The many touted solutions are actually only partial remedies and subsolutions. The touted subsolutions include technology applications such as controls, manufacturing integration, MES, SCM, DCM, EAI, ERP, ASP, SAN, automation, robotics, EAM, and others.
"Failure to integrate these disparate subsolutions within an EIO framework results in proliferating the islands of information and automation and tower of Babel currently too common in business and industry. EIO's goal for business is to make the subsolutions work together easily and seamlessly.
"The goal of achieving productivity and flexibility means getting the right information at the right time to the right decision maker (person or machine). These are the '3 R's' of enterprise integrated operations," Funk said.
Wireless won't replace copper
"We are heading into a wireless world. Everything, from our cars to our toasters, will connect by miniature radio transceivers embedded in every imaginable appliance. Personal digital assistants and laptop computers will freely exchange addressing and security information," said networking wonk Dan Capano.
"Data can then, at the discretion of the users, transfer without a physical hookup. Groups of laptops, PDAs, or other portable devices will work together in piconets, small ad hoc wireless networks requiring no more coordination for implementation than calling everyone into the same room.
"It will be possible to transfer data between computers and appliances without cabling and at transfer rates that will meet and exceed those currently achieved on hard-wired networks.
"Conventional cabled networks will be around for quite some time, however. Copper and fiber will serve as the powerhouse backbones doing the heavy lifting, transferring the terabytes of information each second through the millions of existing installed miles of both.
"Wireless, though, will free us from desks, offices, and allow a more relaxed and informal way to handle data. Remote control will never be the same," said Capano.
"Equipment and devices that are mobile or located in areas where network wiring is unavailable or not economical can be seamlessly monitored and controlled with equipment on the wired network," Hougland said. "With a wireless LAN, the TCP/IP transport mechanism and application-level protocol support are identical to the wired LAN.
"Looking beyond wireless LAN, future wireless technology like Bluetooth is poised to become a player in the industrial space. The promise of the Bluetooth personal area network is to provide a wireless link from transmitters and sensors to an I/O aggregating system, reducing the need to run field wiring at the lowest levels."
Military contractor Bob Lindeman added, "I see a significant expansion in the availability and use of wireless products for the factory floor. Wireless LANs will open the doors to expanding automation in older plants where the cost of cabling, either copper or fiber, has been prohibitive in retrofitting existing lines. This will open new opportunities for automation in smaller plants throughout the world."
Downsizing goes dumbsizing
Industrial safety expert Paul Gruhn of Siemens Moore related the following to InTech.
Question (actually posted to an online e-mail group): "Has anyone on the list been involved with maintaining building pressures? I need to keep a containment area negative to prevent toxic emissions from escaping. This is a relatively open, dirty, smelting facility, so it'll be hard to do. What sort of pressures is typical? I'm thinking nominal values like 10 inches of water between areas of different classifications? Any feedback?"
Response 1: "Probably 1 inch is more realistic. 10 inches is a lot of pressure. Your internal walls might not even be able to hold that if not designed for it. This is a pretty common problem but one that can require some very specialized expertise. I suggest you consult an architect who does this kind of thing for a living. People who design semiconductor plants would be a good place to start."
Response 2: "Ten inches of water of differential pressure would prevent people from opening/ closing a door. We usually run them about 0.01 to 0.02 inches of water."
Response 3: "Ten inches sounds about right."
What's wrong with this picture?
Here's Gruhn's analysis: "Does anybody else see a problem here? Are we downsizing so much that there's no one left in our plant who knows how to do anything? Are we reduced to posting our problems worldwide, to people who don't even know the answer, hoping for a solution?
"Here's a guy who's essentially being told, 'You're either correct, or you're off by 3 orders or magnitude.' When was the last time you designed or selected a piece of equipment and were off by a factor of 1,000, and what would happen to you (or your facility) if you did?
"What scares me is I see this happening in the field of process safety. At some process plants, there's nobody left who really understands the issues. There are facilities that fall under 29 CFR 1910.119 (Process Safety Management of Highly Hazardous Chemicals) and don't even know the ISA S84 standard [on safety-instrumented systems] exists, even though it's been out for over four years. These organizations want to outsource everything, including their process expertise.
"It's only a matter of time before something goes boom. Management may then finally realize they scaled back a little too far. Then again, perhaps they'll just rely on the standard fallback operator error and carry on as usual."
Process industry sage Bela Liptak added this anecdote: "When I sit down with a client to discuss the controls of a new plant, there usually are no instrument engineers in the conference room. When I ask for their process control engineers so that somebody will understand what I am saying, the answer often is, 'We have only instrument technicians. We leave the engineering to the vendors.'
"We need the experienced instrument engineers in management positions if we want to maintain the safety of our plants."
Internet replaces engineers
Some see the decline in on-site talent as a fait accompli, have grudgingly embraced it, and are coping. "Yes, many plants have downsized over the past five years to the point that expertise is thin," Hull said. "The remedy is to be able to access the control systems as a problem arises.
"Three scenarios have started to emerge with Internet access that involve vendor support, headquarter support, and plant support.
"If a problem exists with the DCS equipment, the vendor can access files, graphics, and data to assist the plant in solving the problem in a quick manner. Many problems can and will be looked at in a real-time mode. The time and cost associated with dispatching a field engineer will not be much of a factor.
"Many plants rely on headquarters to analyze unit performance. HQ can and will make decisions on a fleetwide basis rather than by plant or unit. This will enable utilities to economically dispatch units as well as make quick decisions once problems do arise.
"Within the plant, the I&C supervisor/technician will utilize online tools to access information and historical data. Many plants with reduced staff rely on first-shift personnel to support plant problems on second and third shifts. Engineers can now link to the plants from home when that 2 a.m. problem arises, and problems will be resolved remotely," said Hull.
These three scenarios aim at improving plant performance with active or proactive maintenance and will happen using means not available a couple of years ago. The next evolution in control will be Internet access using wireless technology. Plants will use wireless to provide instant feedback to their plants from virtually anywhere.
Have a happy New Year . . . and new century, courtesy of instrumentation, systems, and automation.
Figures and Graphics
- Bluetooth: Is anyone going to sink their teeth in?
- Dramatic growth on the subcontinent
- Oil holds powerful wild card in Europe
- U.S. economic forecast 2001 highlights
Nicholas Sheble is senior technical editor for InTech.