Are Industrial Protocols Going the Way of AppleTalk, DecNet & Netware?

  • September 18, 2018
  • Feature
Are Industrial Protocols Going the Way of AppleTalk, DecNet & Netware?
Are Industrial Protocols Going the Way of AppleTalk, DecNet & Netware?

By Bill Lydon, Editor,

The industrial automation industry has a reputation and history of being behind the technology adoption curve.  Why is this? Incumbent suppliers are among the most vocal, arguing this is due to the conservative nature of the industry and the organizational need for reliability and system availability. There is certainly some truth to that area of discussion, but the key question always follows: When is a new technology reliable enough that the benefits outweigh the risk?   In multiple instances, we have seen this issue rise as industrial automation systems have changed over time, to the point where established suppliers struggle with, and in some cases resist change. This has included:

  • Proprietary versus Microsoft Windows hosted HMIs, SCADA, Alarm, Historians, APC, Optimization, and other applications.
  • Mechanical versus Coriolis Flow Measurement Devices
  • Mechanical Float versus Ultrasonic Level Sensors
  • Proprietary Factory Networks versus Standard Ethernet


What is Stability?

Certainly, a technology needs to achieve a threshold of quality and stability to be applied in industrial automation to gain the benefits and competitive manufacturing advantage.  And there again we revisit the key question: When is the new technology stable and reliable enough?


Implementation Shifts to Users

In the past, industrial automation suppliers tended to make that decision, because they were the only ones that could incorporate new technology into systems.  However, this has been changing with the dramatic quality and stability improvements of open standard commercial off-the-shelf technology.   As Microsoft Windows gained adoption, the users created applications extension tailored to their needs, using spreadsheets and Visual Basic programs.   Another recent striking example is the application of virtualization in the factory to lower total cost of ownership and improve performance.  Again, users were ahead of industrial automation vendors deploying this innovation in their operations and in some cases, vendors threatened to void their system warranties.   Later, automation vendors embraced virtualization.   Another example can be found where users implement their own historians and analytics, using on-site OPC servers, to collect data and push it to Amazon Web Services or Microsoft AZURE Cloud.  One user told me that the catalyst for their implementation was the ease of use, flexibility, greater cost effectiveness, and lower TCO compared to automation vendor solutions.  These issues prompted discussions with their IT people about other alternatives, leading to the use of Amazon Web Services.


Rise of Networking

In the early days and out of necessity, the computer industry invented a number of proprietary networking architectures and protocols including AppleTalk, DecNet, WangNet, and Novell NetWare.  Over time these efforts evolved to open networks, but not without resistance from established suppliers.  For example, the TCP/IP suite for many years was not considered a serious alternative by IBM, due in part to the lack of control over the intellectual property. This thinking was counter to the customer demand for interoperability and led to the creation of the Internet Engineering Task Force which develops and promotes Internet standards.

If the Internet was not based on open standards, we would be subscribing to unique suppliers - similar to CompuServe and AOL in the early days of online computing - and paying hourly rates for connection time.


Industrial Automation Supplier Struggle – Long-Term Innovation vs Short Term Financials

As a bigger picture view on the issue, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen discussed innovation and adaptation in his work and book, Innovator's Dilemma. In it, he explains how companies that are dominant in their industries tend to most easily fail in the face of disruptive innovations.  These companies can struggle with the decision of adopting new innovations and technologies, that may change industry and possibly lower their sales volume.  This short-term thinking has claimed a long list of victims in various industries.  For those that remember buying pre-Microsoft Windows HMIs, this situation may be obvious.

In cases of disruptive innovation, there has been a clear record of established suppliers that fail, because they lose sight of the fact they need to earn the respect of customers by providing better quality products, important features, and superior service at a fair price, rather than “locking in” the customer.

Industrial automation vendors who wish to be successful in this new environment need to recognize that users ultimately value product quality, functionality, and service. The days of creating proprietary lock-ins and gated ecosystems are quickly ending and will not be a long-term successful strategy for automation suppliers.


The Race for Manufacturing Competitiveness

The dramatic growth of world competition, coupled with widespread technology availability, means manufacturers need to adopt technology to keep pace with competitors, both new and old.   There is a thought-shift going on in manufacturing, where the influx of new strategies and IoT technologies are providing building blocks for efficient, open systems which manufacturers can use to be remain competitive.   Connectivity has made the world a lot smaller, and the support for open standards is one way that innovation is accelerating the implementation of digital factory concepts. This effort is reflected by a number of cooperative initiatives including:


Industry 4.0 World Adoption

Industry 4.0 concepts that are being adopted worldwide with various initiatives.  Some of these global initiatives include Made in China 2025, Japan Industrial Value Chain Initiative (IVI), Make in India, and Indonesia 4.0.  Clearly there is a future for the holistic automation, business information, and manufacturing execution architecture to improve industry with the integration of all aspects of production and commerce across company boundaries for greater efficiency. 


Industry 4.0 for Process

Industry 4.0 initially focused primarily on discrete manufacturing, but the technology quickly evolved and now there is a growing focus on applying Industry 4.0 concepts to process automation as well with the NAMUR Industry 4.0 for Process initiative.


The Open Process Automation Forum

The Open Process Automation™ Forum (OPAF), launched in November 2016, is rapidly defining a standards-based, open, secure, multivendor, interoperable control architecture to satisfy the technical and business requirements of process industries. A major driver for this effort has been the widespread call for accelerating the modernization of automation technology, along with an ecosystem of suppliers that can leverage the latest technology in ways analogous to the evolution of the computer, telecommunications, consumer electronics, military defense, and avionics industries.

Industrial automation suppliers that understand the new environment and focus on being an innovative and attentive partner with their customers will flourish; just as those in the computer industry, that successfully went through this transition in the past, have grown rather than meeting their demise.

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