The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers' high speed serial databus (IEEE-1394), commonly referred to as FireWire, recently started appearing on new PCs as well as on a wide variety of other digital devices. Many in the industry consider this new data bus the optimal digital interface technology for networking in the 21st century. If they are right, this next generation interconnect technology will have an impact on manufacturing especially in shops where PC-based controls are on the increase.
IEEE-1394 began in 1986 as Apple Computer's alternative to the tangle of cables required to connect printers, modems, external hard drives, scanners and other peripherals to PCs. The IEEE-1394 standard (adopted in 1995) was derived from Apple's original FireWire design. Even though "FireWire" is an Apple trademark, it has often been used generically when referring to 1394 interface products. However, many companies are registering their own product names, such as Sony's i.LINK; Silicon Graphic's DVLink; OPTi's TriFire; Adaptec's DPS Spark; and Unibrain, which generated three names, FireBoards, FireNet, and FirePrint, to address various 1394 products.
IEEE-1394 is a high-speed serial bus protocol standard that currently provides real-time data transfer up to 400 Mbps. Work is in process by 1394's technical committees to extend it to 1.6 Gbps. The reason this interface is drawing so much attention is that computer and consumer electronics manufacturers look at it as a bridge that brings PCs and consumer electronics together, enabling yet another level of open architecture. For example, 1394 interfaces can enable a VCR to be used for showing movies as well as to route data to a PC for storing. Because of the very high data rates that IEEE-1394 can handle, it is ideal for consumer audio/video (A/V) components, storage devices, printers, high-resolution scanners, digital cameras, plus a wide range of other portable devices.
In addition to its desirable high speed capability, 1394 interfaces also support plug-and-play capability that enables devices to be "hot-pluggable." This means they can be added or removed from a system without the need to power down and reboot. This can be a very desirable capability when rebooting a system such as a network server or CNC machine is awkward and undesirable. Also, cabling has been simplified. Data is sent via two separate shielded twisted pair transmission lines, plus two wires used to carry power, eliminating the need for peri-pheral devices to have their own power supplies.
In order to promote 1394's use throughout industry, a 1394 Trade Association has been formed. Its role is to actively promote this new serial bus technology into the computer, consumer, peripheral, and industrial markets to enable a truly interoperable, standardized, universal I/O and back plane interconnect. There are currently more than 180 companies and organizations that make up the Trade Association with members from four continents. Members organize, hold meetings, arrange conferences for developers and conduct trade shows as a means of working together on the use of IEEE-1394 to expand all of their target markets.
At Comdex '98 the 1394 Trade Association's booth demonstrations included desktop PCs from NEC Corp. and Soney Corp., printers from Hewlett-Packard Co., hard drives from Seagate Technology Inc. and a monitor from Samsung Electronics Inc.—all of which included IEEE-1394 interfaces. In addition, Microsoft and Intel recently reaffirmed their commitments to making implementation of IEEE-1394 a reality in 1999. Intel is expected to have 1394 chipsets on the market by early 1999 and Microsoft already has 1394 drivers included in Windows 98 and Windows NT with planned support in Windows 2000.
Just how big have sales of 1394 devices been and what is the Trade Association's outlook for the future? According to its quarterly newsletter, there were 2 million units shipped in 1997. This number jumped to 10 million units in 1998 and it is projecting 85 million units to ship this year. If the Trade Association's projected sales are correct, we will be seeing a lot of 1394 interfaceable devices on the market this year.