Manufacturing is evolving. Are standards keeping up?

Dec. 20, 2021
New standards are being created to avoid situations where every single vendor has their own digitalization solution.

Industrial standards are evolving alongside the manufacturing practices to which they pertain. But it’s hard to keep up with these changes. Here we chat with Michael Bowne, executive director of PI North America, to get his take...

Smart Industry: How are standards changing as digital initiatives mature?

Michael: I see three trends occurring in the realm of standardization as digitalization becomes more prominent in industry.

Adapting to new technologies

First, there’s a need to adapt existing standards to new technologies. For example, with industrial Ethernet there are new technologies being created that simply didn’t exist in the past. One instance, for factory automation, would be a technology like Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN). While the concept of TSN isn’t necessarily new—mechanisms of which have been present in PROFINET for a long time—what’s new is that its mechanisms are being brought into ‘ordinary’ Ethernet. This is to benefit of all end-users. As a result, we have adapted our PROFINET standard to meet these new advancements, while maintaining backwards-compatibility.

Another instance, in process control, would be a technology like the Advanced Physical Layer (APL). APL is a new physical layer for Ethernet that enables its installation in explosion-hazardous areas, over two wires, carrying both data and power. Here again, we have integrated this new technology into our standards.

Avoiding single-source solutions

The second trend I see is simply the increasing push for standardization as a way to enable digitalization. It’s the same old story. Yes, proprietary solutions can solve many challenges posed by Industry 4.0. However, these often require significant investment and promote vendor lock-in. They are, therefore, inaccessible to small- or medium-sized enterprises.

On the other hand, omlox would be a fine example of a nonproprietary solution. Omlox is the first open, standardized, vendor-neutral, real-time locating system (RTLS) for industry. It enables both indoor and outdoor location tracking independent of technology or provider.

To summarize: spanning the digitalization stack from the shop floor to the top floor, new standards are being created to avoid situations where every single vendor has their own digitalization solution, and end-users find themselves struggling with a plethora of solutions each incompatible from the next. This is the situation we are trying to avoid.

Focusing on use-cases

The third trend I see is the focus on use-cases. The “use-case” buzzword is frequently referenced within the scope of Industry 4.0, and for good reason. Of course there are always those that misappropriate buzzwords for purely marketing purposes, but by and large the focus on use-cases is a positive step. Developing technology for technology’s sake often yields overly complex standards that never get adopted in the real world by end-users.

Examples of this abound. PROFIBUS became the de-facto fieldbus standard through the fieldbus wars of the 1990s because it provided the right amount of features to benefit the most users without succumbing to scope-creep. Other fieldbuses existed for sure, but they either didn’t meet the needs of industry or were over-engineered.

When standardization work revolves around use-cases, we can focus our developments on those providing the greatest impact for users. This has been—and remains—our approach to all standards in the PROFIBUS & PROFINET International (PI) technology portfolio.

Smart Industry: How is the current era of remote work and automation affecting the creation / application of standards in the industrial space? 

Michael: Weathering the storm of the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t been too difficult for the development of our standards within PI. Our organization is built around working groups: teams of people staffed by engineers from member companies volunteering their time to work on standardization.

This work had already occurred—mostly remotely—prior to the COVID-19 pandemic as any given working group’s members are already scattered around the globe. Documents are still made available for review, comments accepted, drafts written, and finalized for publication.

The continuing education of users on PI’s technologies has shifted to more digital-based methods, but optimism remains that a return to in-person events will eventually occur.

Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic hands-on training events had to be cancelled, which resulted in engineers having to put off their training by a year. In lieu of that, while there is no replacement for hands-on training, online content and courses have been created to keep the industry educated.