Those involved in selecting, applying and managing automation solutions often hear about developments related to a variety of standards. For suppliers, it is very important to track and – if possible – participate in the development of standards, as this can can provide valuable guidance for product development. For end users, the situation is less clear.
Consultants and other experts often advise end users to educate themselves about applicable standards, and – most importantly – reference them in requests for information or requests for proposals. The idea is that this will accelerate standards adoption by suppliers and ultimately, lead to increased interoperability and perhaps even lower costs.
Unfortunately, there are real challenges associated with following such advice, beginning with the commonly quoted observation attributed to computer scientist Mike Tanenbaum:
“The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from.”
The number of standards and the ever-increasing complexity of the technology that forms the basis for modern automation solutions make it difficult to impossible for all but the most dedicated experts to even identify all the standards that may be relevant to a given situation. Identification is only the first step. After the list of potentially applicable standards is assembled, the real work starts. This begins with reading and understanding the often-arcane details and identifying the portion of the standards that are most relevant. All this can take considerable time and effort. The simple truth is that many, if not most end user companies are reluctant or unable to provide the resources required.
Given this rather bleak description, an end-user might be tempted to throw up their hands and ignore the entire situation. Unfortunately, this response may have potentially serious long-term consequences.
In the early stages of a system life cycle, evaluating possible new products or solutions without being familiar with current standards may put an end user at a disadvantage when discussing options with suppliers. Some knowledge of industry developments is a valuable tool for end users during this process.
In the later stages, unanticipated changes to solutions and technology in response to evolving standards can catch the end user off guard and present serious challenges in areas such as integration, support and migration. Just as with specific products and technologies, standards evolve and mature over time and may be replaced with superior alternatives. Relying on what has become an obsolete standard can have serious implications for long-term support.
Considering the above pros and cons, the question remains; should standards be important to end users? Based on anecdotal evidence it appears that the answer is yes, at least for certain types of end user companies. Standards are particularly important in cases where systems are larger and more complex, perhaps including products and technologies from many sources and suppliers.
As part of the procurement process, approved standards such as ISA-95/IEC 62664, OPC UA and IEC 61131 are routinely listed as minimum requirements in requests for information of proposal. End users can also use the supplier’s level of knowledge and familiarity with popular standards as a criterion in evaluating potential suppliers before even considering the details of their products.
Standards development organizations (SDOs) such as ISA, IEEE, and IEC benefit from the contributions from a variety of end users. Recent developments such as the creation of the Open Process Automation Forum provide additional opportunities for end users to demonstrate their support for standards-based solutions and technologies. End user contributors can also benefit from being exposed to a broader range of use cases for benchmarking and planning purposes.
Whether developed by a formal standards development organization (e.g., IEC, ISO, etc.), or by on industry consortium, the standards produced are almost certain to be of higher quality and have broader acceptance if they include input from a broad spectrum of stakeholder groups. Better and more robust solutions are ultimately the most important benefit to the end user.