ISA Tackles the Standards Dichotomy

Standards are intrinsically difficult to implement and adopt. Everyone agrees that you need them; but then, everyone has conflicting requirements.

End-users want standards because, more than anything else, they provide interoperability and reduce dependence on any specific supplier. For this very reason, suppliers only pretend to support standards, when, in reality, the ones they really promote are those that give them a distinct proprietary advantage. This dichotomy is succinctly expressed by a couple of verses from one of my fieldbus poems:

The basic cause of all the fuss

The Users want an Open bus

They push and threaten, beg and plead

“Interoperable” is what they need

The widgets made by Vendor A

With Vendor B must plug and play

The Vendors swear they all agree

But just can’t bear to make it free

An open door will throw away

Their value-core and make it gray

Proprietary will be gone

To hordes of hungry hangers-on

Conflicting standards have bad effects for everyone. Customers get confused and postpone purchases to see how the market settles. And suppliers limit development investments in products that may end up on the losing side of the conflict. So growth is inhibited and the market becomes fragmented.

Industrial automation is a specialty niche, complicated by several conflicting issues. Performance and price limitations, plus technical confusion, limit spread beyond narrow applications environments. For example, for industrial networking, there are several standards (notice the dichotomy in that statement). The international “fieldbus” committee actually approved eight different standards, some of them directly competitive. This was evidently a compromise; one must assume that the decision to approve several standards was made primarily to put an end to the conflict and allow the market to decide which standards achieved the broadest adoption.

End-users cannot drive standards; there are few users big enough to set standards independently, and cooperation through user-committees merely results in analysis paralysis. Vendor involvement compounds the confusion because they simply promote their own preferences.

Suppliers cannot openly promote standards where they have a clear edge, because that inhibits adoption by competitive suppliers. So, major suppliers entice others to adopt their technology through promoting “open standards associations.” They “donate” sufficient information for others to develop a broad range of products, but maintain their advantage through ownership of key intellectual properties (such as application-specific integrated circuits and embedded software).

The role of standards coordinator is best served by a neutral third-party organization, which can mediate effectively and is fair to all. For industrial automation, the best choice is the Instrumentation, Systems and Automation Society (ISA).

ISA is already globally recognized as a standards writing organization. It has developed consensus standards for automation, security, safety, batch control, control valves, fieldbus, environmental conditions, measurement and symbols. Accredited by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), ISA has published more than 135 standards, recommended practices and technical reports. Its Standards and Practices involvement is one of the organization’s major services to the automation industry.

Ensuring balance

ISA standards development processes are less about policing and more about finding ways to ensure that committees have a good balance of suppliers, end-users and other industry participants. This results in standards that do not favor one industry segment or type of knowledge, but are helpful to the industry as a whole.

It’s important that standards are developed quickly to benefit the industry before the technology becomes obsolete. ISA has developed good processes that help committees to speed the publication of standards towards successful industry implementation.

In my opinion, development and publication of Standards and Practices (S&P) is one of ISA’s most important and beneficial services to its members, and to the automation business.

Jim Pinto is an industry analyst and commentator, writer, technology futurist and angel investor. You can e-mail him at: jim@jimpinto.com. Pinto’s new book: “Pinto’s Points – how to win in the automation business,” has just been published by the ISA (September 2005). Read the complete Table of Contents at: http://JimPinto.com/writings/points.html

More in Control