I just received my March copy of the Industrial Automation Insider. Editor Nick Denbow delivers news from a British perspective with a blend of characteristic British wit and the occasional piercing aside. PR people sometimes cringe because he may pierce an occasional hole through a carefully crafted company message.

He makes his living through selling his monthly 12-page newsletter, delivered in pdf form distributed through email to a large list in Europe and North America. So, I’ll point you to his Web site where you can decide to subscribe to get the entire message. He also blogs at Industrial Automation Insider Blog where you can see some of his coverage later than the rest of the world.

Denbow devotes 25% of the March issue to a discussion of the current status of the ISA100 committee. I guess what provided the spark was an article published at Control Global by well known networking gadfly Dick Caro. Part of the definition of gadfly may be a bit harsh, but the part that says, “one who tries to provoke action through criticism,” fits Caro pretty well. We might remember his public resignation from standards committees for industrial networking when the IEC decided to bless as standards each of the championed “fieldbuses” rather than work for a single standard fieldbus.

Similarly, Caro had hoped for a single wireless sensor network and through his hat into that ring to work toward it as part of the ISA100 wireless committee. Unfortunately, the ISA100 committee became one of the most dysfunctional committees ever (private conversation with a nameless committee person). And the reason for his diatribe was that the subcommittee charged with finding a convergence between the ISA100 and WirelessHART technologies was recently disbanded. The net result is not one, but two, standards.

As Denbow reports, “Inevitably this next description of the conflict, is an observational view from a European based outsider, your INSIDER editor, a personal view after watching the development of wireless products and this standards battlefield for many years. In retrospect, the real hassle all seemed to start in 2008, when the ISA, the Instrument Society of America, as it was known, published the concept of the ISA100 specification to define what was needed for equipment using wireless communications on a process plant. Just the sort of thing that one would expect a user driven and member owned organization to do.

“But somehow or other, it came with a ready-made US-style commercial structure, obviously said to be ‘non-profit making’, but appearing to use paid staff, facilities, letterheads, logos etc, that would oversee and police the standard, called the Automation Standards Compliance Institute, ‘owned’ by the ISA, which then in turn owned / operated another organization called the ‘ISA100 Wireless Compliance Institute’, a club which required a hefty fee on the table before you could really start talking. Within these two organizations there was obviously plenty of room for many rôles, which required seconded staff and so on. Obviously ISA100 had been a long time in the preparation and planning, before the ISA revealed this concept.”

Denbow has written the best history of that committee I have seen. And he tries to balance the conflicting interests as well as is possible–meaning that it really isn’t possible.

Let me back up a second. I’ve followed the developments for years. Talked to a lot of people. Much of what I know is strictly off the record. Therefore, no names or numbers.

Now, I don’t know that ISA top brass had it in mind from the beginning to develop a technology standard rather than a user standard so that it could raise some income by selling compliance testing services and labels. I don’t care. There are already so many innuendos floating around in the blogosphere about the committee, we don’t need another.

However, the committee did decide to write a technology standard. That is, it decided that even though it is a user committee, it would develop the technology and prescribe it as part of a normative standard. The ISA standards with which I am most familiar, ISA88 and ISA95, are both user standards that are designed to help users implement technology. They are both successful. I used to hear complaints about whether or not a certain supplier’s software was “compliant” with one or the other of these standards. Such a statement made no sense. There was no compliance test. The burden of development was on the user to use the model to organize the batch or business process and then use a technology in an orderly and repeatable way. Those who have done so have reaped great reward.

Once the ISA100 committee decided to develop a technology, it needed to bring technology suppliers, that is companies not end users, into the discussion. Some companies had started down one path, while others went another. This resulted in pressure on the committee to choose one over the other.

Then, official individual members of the committee became conflicted by being employed by a supplier company. Some were out front, others were contractors who were not transparent with their affiliations. People appealed to the Standards and Practices Board of the Society. Good people were injured professionally. The acrimony was intense.

And the entire thing was senseless.

If only the committee had written a traditional ISA end user standard, years of energy and talents from some great people would not have been wasted. Please note that I am not trying to place blame anywhere. Have you ever been on a committee? I have. I’ve even chaired this type of committee. Sometimes these things take on a life of their own and just start to grow like a snowball rolling down a snowy hill. And they get out of control. And even the best chairpeople can’t rein it in.

The good news is that we have the technologies and the products. And people are using them. And they are helping people better manage plants. And that is a good thing.

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