I’ve chased the drama of wireless sensor networks for around three years, now. CEOs have expressed the opinion that this technology is a game changer in process control. (Note, I’m on record for agreeing.) There have been contentious standards committee meetings that sometimes have spilled over from the “smoke-filled rooms” to public discourse. Suppliers have lined up behind technologies. Charges have been leveled. Now, the dust has settled (oops, didn’t mean a pun there).

This reminds me of one of my favorite poets, T.S. Eliot, who wrote in “The Hollow Men”

This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
This is the way the world ends,
Not with a bang, but a whimper

In an almost anti-climatic press release, we learn that ISA (the International Society of Automation) has approved the long-suffering ISA 100.11a standard for “Wireless Systems for Industrial Automation: Process Control and Related Applications.” In a later press release, we learn, not surprisingly, that the leaders of the Compliance Institute which will certify products for compliance, are from Honeywell Process Systems and Yokogawa Corp.

The amazing thing is that the committee decided not to write a functional or performance specification, but instead it picked technology winners. Rather than going with the protocol stack developed by Dust Networks–the basis for WirelessHart–which has been opened for competitors, it has endorsed the protocol stack/firmware from one different, specific vendor. The short version is — there are two standards for suppliers and their customers to choose from. In this horse race, WirelessHart, promulgated by the Hart Communication Foundation, has a big head start. Although Honeywell is showing off a working ISA100.11a system to the press on the day before the annual ISA Expo in Houston October 5. Unfortunately, I’ve already booked airline tickets. Not wanting to waste a day in Houston, I’m arriving in the evening. So, I’ll miss the tour (in this economy, I can’t afford the airline charge to change tickets).

I’m going to float an idea. Tell me if I’m off base (more than usual). I think there is an analog between this situation and the fieldbus situation of about 10 years ago. With much wailing and gnashing of teeth back then, industry vendors settled on two standards (for discrete)–DeviceNet and Profibus. Did this destroy the industry? Hardly. The competition has been good as each has subsequently developed and extended its technology in different ways. Third-party companies have developed gateways. Users typically picked the network of its dominant automation supplier and then linked as necessary. The companies perhaps hurt the most are the smaller instrument suppliers who must support different technologies. Heck, the competition has even propelled the CC-Link people to open its specification from proprietary to open standard status.

I’m told that the main point of contention was that the eventual ISA winners believed that the WirelessHart solution was not robust enough for control. (Shhh, don’t tell the engineers who are already doing it.)

The key isn’t just in the wireless, anyway. It’s how you use it. I believe it requires integrating field device information into a middleware software application, such as an MES, where analytics are performed and business intelligence is developed. So the race really has just begun. Let the market decide.

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