What’s a plugfest?

Slow horses need not apply. This is about cross-manufacturer device interoperability.
January 21, 2011

Dear Control Engineering: I was looking at a story about a wireless group having a “plugfest.” What’s that supposed to mean?

There are many types of communication and networking in industrial spaces with dozens of different methods and technologies. In many situations, the organizations that design those methods and technologies don’t make any hardware. For example, you can’t buy any actual equipment from the Fieldbus Foundation, Profibus North America, OPC Foundation, or Universal Serial Bus Implementers Forum.

This particular example is a case in point. The ISA100 WCI doesn’t make any wireless devices itself. It only tells other companies how to make hardware that is consistent with the standard. If the standard is written correctly, and manufacturers follow it, devices from different manufacturers should all work together as expected. End users want this, because it tells them that they do not need to depend on any single supplier if they choose a given technology path. Industrial equipment can have a very long lifespan, so such decisions are not taken lightly.

The individual manufacturers are responsible for making sure their devices comply with the standard. Getting certification of compliance usually involves self testing combined with a final test by the organization that issued the standard. Plugfests like this typically happen when a standard is relatively new or has undergone major revisions. Engineers from different companies get together in a big room over several days and plug their devices together and see if it all works. Such events can be very beneficial, because when lots of companies are working on the same sorts of developments at the same time, these get-togethers give engineers a chance to compare notes and cross pollinate. They can also provide practical feedback to the standard organization.

Over the years, Control Engineering has reported on plugfests from a number of organizations, including ODVA, LXI Consortium, and USB.

–Peter Welander, pwelander@cfemedia.com