Innovation's Reality

When I wrote my July editorial on wireless sensor networking, “Hype or Reality,” I was somewhat frustrated trying to discover what was happening after the release of products into users’ hands following a year of talk.

It turns out that my thoughts were debated at a high level within Emerson Process Management. Emerson managers weren’t sure about how much they should promote what they were doing. That sentiment made sense in the context of the Sept. 10 keynote speech of Emerson Electric Co. Chief Executive Officer David Farr at the Emerson Global User Exchange. One of the messages to his division business leaders is to do the business of innovation, not to just issue press releases.

It turns out that there are actually several engineers using the mesh wireless sensor networks and associated asset management software from Emerson—and they are achieving substantial business benefits already. The technology is hardly mainstream, but use is growing. Other wireless news in September is the acceptance of the Hart Communication Foundation's latest specification that includes WirelessHart. Emerson hopes that this standard will find a place as a foundation technology for the eventual ISA100 standard for wireless in process industries. That standard is under development by the SP100 committee of the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA).

The “politics” of the standards development process raised its head just before the Hart board’s vote when Honeywell Process Solutions’ President, Jack Bolick, issued a “Letter to the Editor” to a few publications urging a “No” vote on the Hart standard. Honeywell wireless business lead Jeff Becker followed that with an open letter to the ISA SP100 committee urging it to approve only one protocol stack in its eventual standard (thereby pushing the Hart standard from the ISA standard). I hope that the SP100 committee takes a deep breath and looks clearly at the various technologies and market opportunities. Then I hope they approve something that becomes a living document that assures continued innovation in the space.

Software standards

Talk of standards brings to mind another trip in September—to the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association International (MESA) conference. This association of those interested in manufacturing execution systems highlighted two panel discussions at the meeting of chief information officers. CIOs from technology suppliers GE Fanuc, Rockwell Automation and Siemens Energy & Automation comprised the first panel while the retired CIO of Eastman Chemicals and current CIOs of Navistar and Sara Lee comprised the second. All six advocated having an information systems roadmap while using standards in order to achieve interoperability, scalability and connectivity. None of the CIOs knew what ISA-95 (the standard for connectivity of manufacturing systems to enterprise systems) was, though. Looks as if more evangelizing work needs to be done here.

Also speaking of innovation, I covered the Wonderware announcement of its latest software products, including InTouch 10.0, in yet another trip in September. These products were the result of the vision of many people, but especially Pradaj Mody, who had the concept of using object-oriented programming and Microsoft .Net technologies several years ago. He was able to find an environment conducive to bringing the vision to reality. I had a similar conversation with John Hanks of National Instruments during a recent visit. He talked about how engineers at NI looked at the work being done on state models of processes by SP88 and OMAC’s Packaging Workgroup and how that seemed a natural fit with NI’s LabView graphical programming platform.

Innovation is alive and well in the automation industry—and seems to be much more reality than hype. This then connects to Farr’s last admonition—he loves competing with passion and winning. Jim Pinto picks up that theme this month along with the thought of having fun while winning. I agree.

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