ISA did IoT before it was cool!

ISA has been driving digitalization and IoT for a few decades, but now its not innovating fast enough to keep up with the new digitalization technologies.

Since 1945 the non-profit organization International society of Automation (ISA), has been developing standards for automating processes across industries as varied as Oil and Gas, Petrochemicals, power, food and Beverage, automobile and aviation manufacturing, pharmaceutical, and many more. In the mid-1970s, ISA, working with technology manufacturers drove the industry towards creating standards of digital connectivity that were depended on proprietary communication protocols. One of these protocols HART (Highway Addressable Remote Transducer Protocol) connected (using cables) ‘smart’ instrumentation, that measured variables in the field, to the plant’s centralized control-center main-frame. Think of it as tiny nerve endings in your body, all of which send signals to your brain. It is at this brain/main-frame where all the important voluntary decisions are taken.

Even though, the fundamental concept of connected communication which enables industries to optimize production has not changed over the last few decades, it the number and type of devices as well as the communication protocol that have dramatically reshaped how our industries function today. This has taken the form of what we now called Internet of Things (IoT).

ISA’s vision and direction of digitalization and especially IoT is [1];

  • The IoT vision is a massively instrumented world of intelligent sensors and actuators improving performance and efficiency.
  • IoT will streamline, collapse, and create system architectures that are more affordable, responsive, and effective.
  • IoT eliminates the need for cumbersome, expensive, and difficult to maintain middle-level automation software.

Using wireless protocols such as WirelessHART [2] and ISA100.11a [3] wireless networks, industries can create both centralized (brain like) and localized (neural network) type frameworks that enable optimization.  Even though the fundamental concept of IoT has been easily accepted into industries, given the investments, and skill development that these require, the newer protocols and technologies have not. Given marginal returns, industrial technology has stagnated to a point where innovation is no longer revolutionary but rather incremental. More importantly, there is still a human element to the automation which makes the automation of these industries a mere extension of the human decision making ability to manage industries.

This is where the business model and operational model of the ISA come together and fail momentously. Riding the wave of the unidirectional flow of information, centralized digitalized decision making, incremental technology advancements, and use of newer protocols have brought ISA thus far. But there however has been a fundamental shift in the nature of automation itself. Rather than considering automation as the extension of human decision making, the ‘new wave of automation’ is designing technologies such as artificial intelligence that use sheer computing power take critical decision. As innovation in technologies with faster commuting power and especially advances faster and more autonomous technology such as quantum computing, and machine learning become more easily available to the market, the less significant the influence of ISA gets on these industries.

ISA is not innovating fast enough in the new digital age and that is detrimental to its existence. Soon, companies looking for a competitive edge over their competitors, will create their own standards and will use quantum computing to analyzes and deduce conclusions from big data sets that the main-frame receives and especially design artificial learning software that use these analyses to run plants and entire industries purely based on sheer computing power. [4]

Going forward as automation evolves, the ISA has two options –

  • Let the industry redefine individual standards for each organization and let the industry essentially divide the choice between a few players that control the entire industry.
  • Or bring together various players in the industry to come together again to create new standards and use the ISA to defined standards that enable deeper level of interoperability, connectivity, and automation across the industry.

ISA is at a crossroads and its decision to innovate will shape how our industries look in the future.




[1] Cover story: Internet of things. (2014, April ). Retrieved November 18, 2016, from

[2] Foundation, H. C. (2014). WirelessHART. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from

[3] Studios, B. ISA-100 wireless compliance institute – ISA-100 wireless compliance institute – official site of ISA100 wireless standard. Retrieved November 18, 2016, from

[4] Hardy, Q. (2013, June 19). General electric adds to its “industrial Internet.” Bits. Retrieved from



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Student comments on ISA did IoT before it was cool!

  1. Thanks for the post Subi.
    While standards sound like a very boring business, I have always believed in the power of strong (and open) standards to redefine industries and push technology forward. Wireless standards like IEEE’s 802.11 a/b/g/n (i.e. WiFi) have completely changed the way an entire generation interacts with technology and communicates with each other.

    One thing you mentioned in your post that I was curious about though was how IoT standards like WirelessHART enabled distributed / localized computing. I always though of IoT having a very hierarchical structure in terms of computing power since the main opportunity in my eyes has always been super low-cost sensors / devices that transmit information to a centralized device / the cloud that can then do the heavy computing lifting on all that data. I tried perusing the WirelessHART website you linked in your sources but could not find anything specific with regards to this. The best I could come up with was some way for the standard to define filters or triggers on each sensor or class of sensors to stymie the amount of data and improve the quality of data it sent back to the central system. Would be very interested to hear your thoughts on whether you encountered this during your research.

  2. Thanks of raising this topic, Subi. I agree with Varun, standardization is extremely important in any industry and especially in technology. While it’s never a fun or sexy subject, standardization helps alight players in the industry, reducing fraction and costs. It will be interesting to see how ISA’s thought leadership evolves during the present time of the ever increasing tech change. No doubt, as new technology mediums emerge (IoT, VR) standardization will be as important as ever.

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