Has Open Architecture Delivered?

  • October 28, 2011
  • Feature
October 2011
By Bill Lydon, Editor
Since the 1980s, the automation industry has been adopting standards for networked industrial communications, software, and applications. Have users gained all the benefits originally envisioned?
Why Industry Standardization?
The automation industry has been adopting standards for a number of years because users and suppliers both benefit from standardization. Open standards provide benefits to users and suppliers because they leverage economies of scale and open innovation. Logically, everyone agrees that standards make a life a lot easier.  
Many suppliers initially resist open standards and this creates tension. Initially many suppliers take a position against open standards, particularly large suppliers because it opens their existing customer base to competition. As suppliers come to the realization that their customers and the general market will demand open architecture, they begin adopting open standards.   The value to vendors is that they can deliver the things they do best and easily leverage solutions from other vendors through partnerships while satisfying unique needs of smaller groups of users. These vendors could not afford to develop solutions for these unique needs, and those solutions are brought to market by creative developers in specialty companies.
Over time this pattern of resist and adopt seems to repeat as new standards are introduced.
Standards are great, everyone has their own!
In the case of industrial networks, the next part of this evolution has been proliferation of standards. Large companies, in particular, have become champions of the open standards they initiated. The thinking on the part of large companies is that they will become the premier provider of products based on the standard fostered by them. I had an interesting discussion with one un-named industry executive that was complaining about too many industrial networking standards. I then asked why his company was a champion for a new electrical equipment networking standard since the requirements could be met with at least two or more existing industrial network standards. He responded, “These requirements are different.” I have been on a number of standards committee over the years and the “we are different” defense is related to the NIH (Not Invented Here) problem many companies have.  
Long Journey
Standards take a long time to be accepted and many are continually evolving. Consider some standards we take for granted that started a long time ago including Ethernet TCP/IP (1974), ISA88 (1990s), and Modbus (1979). Open standards follow a typical life cycle of early adoption which then leads to general industry adoption.
Successful Standards
Hardware Standards
There are a range of hardware standards including wire, enclosures, terminal blocks, IEC contactors, and electrical equipment.  The DIN rail standard is a good example of how standards evolve. Before the DIN rail standard for mounting relays and other electrical panel devices, every vendor had their own incompatible system for mounting. This effectively locked users into one supplier’s products.   As the DIN rail became a broad industry standard, the benefits were obvious.
Industrial Networking Standards
There are a number of industrial networking standards - virtually all plants have multiple standard networks. The most recent standard industrial networks are Ethernet based. There are many claims about Ethernet based networks. The most concerning claim comes from sales and marketing people - that all automation products including IP video, HMIs and devices can all run on the same Ethernet network. This is like a plumber telling you there is only a single 1 inch water pipe required for a 20 story office building.
Software Standards
Software standards have been evolving at a slower rate than hardware. Ladder Logic became the de facto standard for programming PLCs and has effectively been replaced by IEC 61131-3. Other important software standards include CAD Information exchange (IGES; DXF), OPC, and OPC UA.   Microsoft Windows is interesting since it has become the de facto standard for industrial automation systems.
Model Based Standards
Model based standards (ISA88, ISA95, and PackML), which are more recent, provide common structure including standardized terminology, object models, data interchange models, data dictionaries, and process relationships. The software industry has used models for years. Models facilitate the use of good structured design methods to improve productivity and quality.
Leveraging Diversity
Open standards provide users a bigger set of solutions to improve their operations and be more efficient. No longer are you locked into products from a single vendor but you can draw upon a wide range of solutions. The innovation from a wide range of companies can be used to your advantage.
Defeating Standards
I have seen the advantages of open architecture killed by purchasing discount agreements that block automation people from using the best solution for applications. These contracts bundle the purchase discounts of all items from a vendor into one contract, and the broader the offerings of the supplier, the more it can hurt the manufacturing productivity of your company. Another feature is that these strategic vendors are your partners helping you improve production. This is a false economy. It is in your best interest to utilize the best possible automation products to improve production regardless of vendor.   If you are looking for design expertise, I suggest you hire consultants that do not sell products.
This purchasing approach is similar to vendor reduction programs that lower the workload for purchasing departments but prevent you from using superior automation solutions. In order for your company to stay competitive, you need to use the best automation solutions to improve operations. In manufacturing, it’s the results that count and increased productivity and efficiency translate into tangible business benefits over time. Another question to consider, how much is it costing you in lost production efficiency if you are not leveraging the multivendor advantage of open architecture?
Thoughts & Observations
Leverage open architecture by understanding your needs and then find the solutions that work in an open architecture and help make your operations the most efficient. 
Strongly consider products that have controllers with onboard interfaces available for all popular industrial automation networks and are offered at a reasonable cost.
What industry has ever embraced open systems, only to later change its mind, turn around, abandon the pursuit, and revert to former proprietary ways?
As a professional, make the case to management that you can increase operations and profits with automation.   This task requires knowledge and analysis as with any other business decision, where the lowest cost may not yield highest profits for the company. 

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