- By Bill Lydon
- Industry 4.0 - Smart Manufacturing
Can another standards war be avoided with exciting new industrial multivendor interoperability and plug-and-play standards? With a growing number of standards to support industrial digitalization, perhaps the automation industry is mature enough to avoid the “fieldbus wars” of the 1990s, when the proliferation of multiple industrial network standards created divergence rather than convergence.
After fieldbus networks started to appear in the 1990s, there were soon more than 20 industrial network “standards.” This led to the observation, “Standards are great; everyone has their own.” It has taken a long time for convergence into a handful of mainstream industrial network standards, most recently on Ethernet with distinct industrial protocols. These include EtherNet/IP, Profinet, and EtherCAT. Native multivendor interoperability is still not possible, but the developing OPC Foundation Field Level Communication initiative has the potential to solve this issue for users.
During an October 2021 press conference about the 2022 Hannover MESSE trade fair, Gunther Kegel, PhD—and CEO of Pepperl+Fuchs, vice president of VDE, and president of ZVEI—discussed the importance of standards and semantic data models used for Industry 4.0 and industrial digitalization. He expressed concern about the proliferation of multiple competing standards. I asked Kegel about achieving worldwide adoption and cooperation given the difficulty, for years, of harmonizing basic electrical standards, such as the term “explosion proof.”
Kegel said that adoption of standards now is going to be even more complicated. Electric engineering in the past was a relatively simple landscape of standardization bodies, including IEC and CENELEC. With the application of new digital technologies, he said industry now has more than 20 standard-setting organizations. The big opportunity—and biggest challenge—is organizations cooperatively working to achieve an international approach.
Kegel noted, “It is not getting easier. We see there is a tendency to come up with regional standards. China, for example, has said goodbye to the international standardization for explosion protection and has now come up with a country-specific regulation. There is a tendency to move apart for economic protection and political reasons, making harmonization more difficult. We are fighting against this by doing standards work together with other associations and synchronizing our efforts.”
Industrial automation continues to lag the computing industry, which went through this transition much earlier after long-running debates known also as the “protocol wars.” From the 1970s to the 1990s, engineers, organizations, and nations became polarized over the issue of which communication protocol would create the best and most robust computer networks.
Industrial automation and controls have not yet achieved multivendor plug-and-play capability, which our computer systems have enjoyed since the 1990s. Despite this lag, users are getting more involved with standards and semantic data model development, because it is essential to achieving Industry 4.0/industrial digitalization and to remaining competitive and profitable.
“It is not getting easier. We see there is a tendency to come up with regional standards. China, for example, has said goodbye to the international standardization for explosion protection and has now come up with a country-specific regulation.”
—Gunther Kegel, PhD
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