Legalities: Not all automation standards are equal

Social media poll: Industry standards can be specifications, industrial standards, codes, or aspirational standards. Leave your opinions here.


Mark Voigtmann is a lawyer with Baker & Daniels, llpI recently took an unscientific poll of automation professionals via various social media groups to ask a simple question: What are the automation standards that you encounter most? There were the inevitable non-answer answers: "I think you need to refine the question." "Any answer you get will be meaningless." And my favorite: “I didn't realize that automation was being implemented by lawyers. But I suppose I should have.”

But then we got into the meat of it.

  • “From a formal standards perspective, I rely on ISA standards where they exist. From there, I fan out to IEC and other accredited standards.”
  • “Definitely ISA 88 and its international shadow IEC 61512.”
  • “Mainly: ISA and IEC. [In] a minor role: NEC, IEEE, PIP.”
  • “IEC 61131 PLC standards and IEC 60417 graphical symbols for use on equipment.”
  • “If you're looking for quality of service issues, I would say the CSIA Best Practices & Benchmarks is a great place to start.”
  • “When it comes to technical work, I would have to say NFPA 70, 70e, and 79. These relate to the National Electric Code and are used by most all enforcement agencies, including OSHA.”
  • “Almost always: UL 508A, NFPA 79, state/local electrical codes.”
  • “I think that ISA95 has much broader applicability to the manufacturing community.”

There were some recurring acronyms of course: IEC, ISA, NFPA, and CSIA. That's when it hit me. One need look no further than the "standards" promulgated by each of these four organizations to see some very important distinctions—not to mention the fact that not all automation "standards" are created equal.

In this sense the individual who wrote "Any answer you will get will be meaningless" had it right. You cannot really assess a standard until you have determined its category. Here are the four categories, as I see them:

Spec standards. IEC 61131-3 strikes me as a pretty good example of a "spec standard." This standard from the International Electrotechnical Commission (now there's an anachronistic, pre-World War I name for you) is said to be the first vendor-independent programming language for PLCs. But, putting that claim aside, there is nothing that requires automation companies to give it any heed—if not specified. For that reason, I call it a "spec standard"—the type of standard that is only in your project if required by the contract documents. (End user-created standards are perhaps the most common type of spec standard.)

Industry standards. By comparison, ANSI/ISA95 fits the definition of what I would describe as an "industry standard"—which means, in my lawyer mind at least, that it potentially has application to your project even if not specified. That is because this standard from the International Society of Automation defines best practices for integrating enterprise and control systems. When I say it "potentially has application," what I am really saying is that if your own method of integrating these systems has problems, someone may be hanging ISA95 around your neck. Thus, something is an "industry standard" if it has the potential to be used against you even if it is not in your contract.

Code standards. NFPA 79 is an example of a "code standard." That means not only is it a standard that has attained pervasive influence (such as an industry standard), it also has become—quite literally—the law. This particular standard, from the National Fire Protection Association, governs electrical wiring in industrial machinery. But don't go out of your way to contact the NFPA to find it. It's right there in the code books. Although the ones adopted by the state legislatures and localities are typically a few years behind the most current version, this is only a minor problem. The bottom line is that these do not need to be in the specs to have legal consequences. If you steer clear of NFPA 79, there is a good chance you have broken the law.

Aspirational standards. On the other side of the spectrum, I see the Best Practices and Benchmarks used by the Control System Integrators Association as the paradigm of an aspirational standard. These standards, which cover a range of activities, from business basics to project competency, accurately set apart CSIA-certified integrators as being the best in the industry. But they are not the sort of standards that are specified for a project—and end users rarely see them. This internal quality makes them, in my view, purely aspirational (if applied correctly).

Moving from the most binding to the least binding category of standards, start with code standards (always binding) to spec standards (binding if specified). Then move through industry standards (persuasively binding) to aspirational standards (not intended to be binding). Only by recognizing the type of standard can you understand its legal impact. (Keep in mind there are some standards that can cross over categories, such as those for "lean manufacturing," the ISO 9000 series of standards, and LEED.)

This is only one part of the equation, of course. The other parts are figuring out exactly what the contract says about standards—and how to mitigate any impact. Read more on that in a future column.

- Mark Voigtmann is a lawyer with Baker & Daniels, llp (Indianapolis, Chicago, Washington, DC, and China). His group assists the automation and process industry in structuring projects and resolving disputes. ( or 317-237-1265).

ONLINE - Reader feedback - join the discussion, leave a comment below

See other "Legalities in Automation" columns below.

Join the discussion: What do you think are the most-used (or most-useful) automation standards? Click here, scroll down, fill in the boxes, and hit submit, to leave your views.

Editor's note: Voigtmann is among speakers at the CSIA 2011 Executive Conference.

No comments
The Top Plant program honors outstanding manufacturing facilities in North America. View the 2013 Top Plant.
The Product of the Year program recognizes products newly released in the manufacturing industries.
The Engineering Leaders Under 40 program identifies and gives recognition to young engineers who...
A cool solution: Collaboration, chemistry leads to foundry coat product development; See the 2015 Product of the Year Finalists
Raising the standard: What's new with NFPA 70E; A global view of manufacturing; Maintenance data; Fit bearings properly
Sister act: Building on their father's legacy, a new generation moves Bales Metal Surface Solutions forward; Meet the 2015 Engineering Leaders Under 40
Cyber security cost-efficient for industrial control systems; Extracting full value from operational data; Managing cyber security risks
Drilling for Big Data: Managing the flow of information; Big data drilldown series: Challenge and opportunity; OT to IT: Creating a circle of improvement; Industry loses best workers, again
Pipeline vulnerabilities? Securing hydrocarbon transit; Predictive analytics hit the mainstream; Dirty pipelines decrease flow, production—pig your line; Ensuring pipeline physical and cyber security
Upgrading secondary control systems; Keeping enclosures conditioned; Diagnostics increase equipment uptime; Mechatronics simplifies machine design
Designing positive-energy buildings; Ensuring power quality; Complying with NFPA 110; Minimizing arc flash hazards
Building high availability into industrial computers; Of key metrics and myth busting; The truth about five common VFD myths

Annual Salary Survey

After almost a decade of uncertainty, the confidence of plant floor managers is soaring. Even with a number of challenges and while implementing new technologies, there is a renewed sense of optimism among plant managers about their business and their future.

The respondents to the 2014 Plant Engineering Salary Survey come from throughout the U.S. and serve a variety of industries, but they are uniform in their optimism about manufacturing. This year’s survey found 79% consider manufacturing a secure career. That’s up from 75% in 2013 and significantly higher than the 63% figure when Plant Engineering first started asking that question a decade ago.

Read more: 2014 Salary Survey: Confidence rises amid the challenges

Maintenance and reliability tips and best practices from the maintenance and reliability coaches at Allied Reliability Group.
The One Voice for Manufacturing blog reports on federal public policy issues impacting the manufacturing sector. One Voice is a joint effort by the National Tooling and Machining...
The Society for Maintenance and Reliability Professionals an organization devoted...
Join this ongoing discussion of machine guarding topics, including solutions assessments, regulatory compliance, gap analysis...
IMS Research, recently acquired by IHS Inc., is a leading independent supplier of market research and consultancy to the global electronics industry.
Maintenance is not optional in manufacturing. It’s a profit center, driving productivity and uptime while reducing overall repair costs.
The Lachance on CMMS blog is about current maintenance topics. Blogger Paul Lachance is president and chief technology officer for Smartware Group.