Why Can't We Be Friends?

Sept. 1, 2005
“Sometimes I don’t speak too bright, but yet I know what I’m talking about.”If you went to high school in the mid-1970s, you’ll recognize those lyrics to the song, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” from War’s album of the same name.

Or maybe your kids know them from the recent Smash Mouth remake of the hit.

This song could be an anthem for the standards work going on in the automation world. Competing standards abound for such technologies as fieldbuses, device description languages, wireless protocols, programming languages—even Ethernet.

Each standards body has its own agenda, its own group of vendors—often promoting proprietary technology—and its own language. If it seems that sometimes they “don’t speak too bright,” it’s because they’re the only ones that know what they’re talking about.

Tower of Babel

At the 2004 World Batch Forum (WBF), E. L. “Skip” Holmes, associate director at The Procter & Gamble Co., called this obfuscation the “Tower of Babel,” a Biblical reference to the book of Genesis’ explanation for the diversity of languages in the world. The Tower of Babel mentality ensures that—through the use of acronyms and industry-specific terminology—no one group will be able to understand another.

Perhaps you’ve been a victim of “inside speak” when you’ve started a new job, changed careers or joined a new organization. One of my pet peeves is sitting through a 30-minute presentation that requires multiple PowerPoint slides just to define the acronyms used in the talk.

Despite these pitfalls, there are many benefits to a common language. The Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA) has done its part by developing the standards discussed in this “batch automation” issue, including ISA-88, for batch control, ISA-95, for enterprise integration, and ISA-99, for security.

According to the ISA, using the ISA-88 batch control standard reduces system and software design costs by as much as 30 percent and can save 10 to 15 percent of the typical cost to meet the Food and Drug Administration’s criteria for automation equipment reliability.

The problem, however, is not a lack of standards, but too many standards working toward the same goal. Jim Pinto, in his column on page 78, points out the oxymoron of having several standards for one objective. He calls upon the ISA to take on the role of third-party mediator, functioning as a standards coordinator.

Literally thousands of automation professionals volunteer for standards work of one sort or another, with more than 4,000 individuals working with ISA alone. Add to that the professionals supporting groups such as the WBF, the Open Modular Architecture Controls (OMAC) users group, the Fieldbus Foundation (FF), the Profibus Trade Organization (PTO), the DeviceNet group (ODVA), the OPC Foundation, the Microsoft Manufacturing Users Group (MS-MUG) and countless other vendor- and industry-specific users groups, such as the Chemical Industry Data Exchange (CIDX).

Take a look at that previous sentence. Eight acronyms to describe just a handful of the industry groups associated with automation. We need to stop making things so needlessly complicated. If ISA can play a role in that, I’m all for it, but past history may dictate its future success.

Rather, each one of us needs to accept our part as instigator and perpetuator of automation obfuscation. Kudos are in order for the active roles that automation professionals—from user companies such as 3M, Bayer, Dow, DuPont, General Motors, Pfizer, Procter & Gamble and so many others—take in this industry. But we need to move away from insider status and toward common languages, common goals and a common standard for a given objective.

Some of the industry groups I’ve mentioned above have already started to take steps to merge development efforts. How can you hurry that process along?