Silly, perverse or even sinister?

The ATEX Directive – noble in objective, but pretty silly in enactment. That seemed to be the consensus among hazardous area equipment vendors and users at last month’s BEAMA-organised conference in London (news, page 8 and analysis, page 14). Even the Health and Safety Executive seems set against it, stating it won’t be withdrawing approvals […]

The ATEX Directive – noble in objective, but pretty silly in enactment. That seemed to be the consensus among hazardous area equipment vendors and users at last month’s BEAMA-organised conference in London (news, page 8 and analysis, page 14). Even the Health and Safety Executive seems set against it, stating it won’t be withdrawing approvals for IEC Ex rated devices and systems when the ATEX axe falls on existing certifications in 2003.

On the face of it, of course, harmonising standards has got a lot going for it. But if the harmony only applies to Europe – and excludes the rest of the known world – it seems just a little short-sighted. It’s hardly an asset to the goal of free trade; and it’s going to make life pretty difficult for contractors and end users’ central engineering departments – trying to work to yet more different standards and legislation on the global stage.

It’s the `silly season’, so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised? Except that this looks set to trouble us for many years to come. You can understand the resistance.

Equally silly, perhaps perverse, are the on-going wranglings over fieldbuses and, in particular, their relative prominence. First there’s the spectacle of Fieldbus Foundation vying with the Profibus group over who’s got the first `real’ fieldbus products installed on `real’ processes. Then there’s the posturing, notably between InterBus, Echelon and Profibus over which has shipped most nodes.

Amazing, isn’t it, how little credit is given for one’s intelligence – when groups seek to hype their position by selectively latching onto certain market research results – and ignoring others? And it all seems somewhat to trivialise what amount, after all, to major advances in plant operations.

Such a pity that the protagonists seem unable to resist reminding the world of the staggeringly tortuous and wasteful route the buses have taken towards would-be standardisation. Surely, there’s some embarrasment out there over the outcome – the market deciding and the eventual emergence of a few de-facto fieldbuses?

Then there’s that business of the alleged patent infringement (EP 0 325 592 B1), and the resulting action brought against Monitoring Systems by Slope International, ultimately owned by Anglo-American (C&I, March page 12, and April page 11). Monitoring Systems has since gone into receivership.

This is less silly; more bizarre. It seems Monitoring Systems was not alone in being pursued for alleged infringement of this patent. According to Eileen Burnett, Monitoring Systems’ chair, it transpires that Echelon, developer of LonWorks, has also been attacked. `But they say they aren’t infringing the patent’, she says.

Meanwhile, Endress + Hauser, Switzerland has established that the European patent is actually only valid in the UK due to procedural failings elsewhere in Europe. All very well, but it’s small comfort to anyone in industrial fieldbus systems elsewhere. And, as Burnett says, until the patent is tested in court no-one knows where they stand.

We live in strange times.