Version 137 (modified by gordonrachar, 13 years ago)


History of ISO 15926


  1. Abstract
  2. Metaphor: Interoperability is Like Heavier-Than-Air Flight
  3. How We Store and Exchange of Textual Information
    1. Dealing with Proprietary Hardware
    2. Dealing with Proprietary Software - Personal Scale
    3. Dealing with Proprietary Software - Industrial Scale
    4. Markup Languages
  4. How We Know and Understand Things
    1. Ontology
  5. How We Use the Internet to Find Information
    1. The Semantic Web
  6. How we Store and Exchange Plant Information
    1. Plant Information Interoperability Projects
    2. The Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES)
    3. Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP)
    4. PlantSTEP
    5. Process Industries STEP Consortium (PISTEP)
    6. PIEBASE
    7. European Union and ESPRIT
    8. ProcessBase
  7. NEXT


Interoperability of digital information became an issue almost as soon as computers made their way into engineering offices. Many organizations from around the world have been working on this topic for many years, from Owner/Operators, Constructors, Consulting Engineers, and Software Developers. Many standards organizations world wide are involved, some having been created just for this purpose.

Metaphor: Interoperability is Like Heavier-Than-Air Flight

There have been many attempts at interoperability, some fizzling out in a few years, some lasting until today. Different organizations, with different needs have tried slightly different approaches. All of these attempts have had to deal with how to convey the meaning of the data as it (the data) is being transmitted. Some solutions are based on limiting the scope of the data in order to simplify the task of conveying meaning, others attempt to allow unlimited scope.

At the lowest level, interoperability is extremely complex, just as the mechanics of flying is extremely complex. Fortunately, when it is mature, using ISO 15926 will be about as complicated as using flight is today. For instance, your humble author, sitting in the middle of Western Canada in the coldest winter since Al Gore started on the rubber chicken circuit, is right now thinking about using heavier-than-air flight. But if I do, I will not have to concern myself with things like power-to-weight ratios, or the exact curve of the wing to maximize the difference in air pressure between the upper and lower surfaces. I will simply phone my travel agent and book a flight to Mexico. Similarly, when ISO 15926 is mature, all most users will need to know is which button to push to connect to a business partner.

ISO 15926 is a solution to interoperability of plant information made possible by the confluence of four areas of interest:

  • How we store and exchange textual information
  • How we know and understand things
  • How we use the Internet to find things
  • How we store and exchange plant information

We may well end up with different tools for interoperability, just as there are many solutions today for heavier-than-air flight depending on one's need (glider, propeller airplane, jet airplane, helicopter, lifting body). But just as in flight, where the common element to all modes of flight is a particular shape of whatever is doing the lifting (wing, rotor, aircraft body), we are starting to see that the dictionary of terms is becoming a common element. In Figure 1, below, this is shown as the common use of ISO 15926-4, the reference data library.

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Fig 1 - History of ISO 15926

How We Store and Exchange of Textual Information

Human society has always had to find ways to manage, store, and retrieve information. The Library of Alexandria, which burned down in 48 BC (according to one story), is an example of both the best technology for managing information in hard-copy form, and a major limitation of doing so.

With the advent of computer-managed storage in the mid twentieth century, information managers have had to grapple with two problems:

  • Survival of information beyond the lifetime of proprietary hardware and software.
  • Moving a large amount of information between proprietary systems.

Dealing with Proprietary Hardware

A typical example of these types of questions is a help desk inquiry from the mid 1980's:

I have data I want to keep for decades. Should I invest in a good card reader, or should I transfer my data to these far more efficient but newfangled "floppy disks"?

Unfortunately, the best answer to this kind of question has always been rather labor intensive. That is, the only reliable way to keep digital information for decades is to upgrade your storage media every few years to whatever is the latest and greatest at the time. For personal use, in the 1980s it would have been 5 1/2" floppy disks. By the 1990s you would have had to copy your archive to 3 1/2" floppies. Then, sometime around 2000, the best storage medium became CDs, and a bit later, DVDs. At first everyone thought they would last for decades, but sometimes they didn't even last two years:

Now, nearing the end of the first decade in the twenty-first century, flash drives are looking like they will be readable for quite awhile. But ask yourself the likely hood of personal computers having USB ports in twenty years? Maybe, but whether in twenty years or forty years, at some point you will still have to load up your thumb drives and copy them to some new media; perhaps a three-dimensional, holographic memory block.

Dealing with Proprietary Software - Personal Scale

Unfortunately, even if you go through the exercise of transferring your archive every few years, how are you going to open the files twenty-five years from now? In the lifetime of your humble author (who is so old he can remember when an entire family had to make do with a single telephone), the word processor of choice has gone from WordStar, to Word Perfect, to Microsoft Word. (This would be a good place for a Mac vs PC joke if I could think of one!)

Working with Word 2002, now, as this is being written, we can see that Word users can open the following word processor file formats:

  • Word 2.0
  • Word 5.1 for Mac
  • Word 6.0 (95)
  • Word Perfect 5.0
  • Works 2000

Where is my beloved WordStar? In addition to copies of all my data files, do I have to keep copies of all my old authoring software? And even if I do, what will I run it on? Do I also have to keep a working model of each vintage of personal computer? What if it breaks down?

So now, if I actually want to be able to retrieve my personal archives for decades (perhaps I am thinking that after I become a famous author, a publisher will give me a million dollar advance to write my memoirs), I will have to open each of my archived files every couple years and somehow transfer the contents to whatever the new authoring software is.

This will remove the problem of having to keep old hardware and software around, but will introduce a new set of problems:

First, this solution will create an upper limit on how much information I can keep around. Since it will take a certain amount of time to upgrade my archive each cycle, I will have less and less time each round to create new information. Eventually I will just finish one upgrade when I will have to start over with new technology.

Second, who's to say there will always be a clear and easy upgrade path from one authoring software to the next? For example, what if I have a large number of files authored with obscure CAD software? What if none of the current set of dominant players did not write the appropriate conversions into their offerings?

Well, there is another option:

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Fig 2 - Long Term Information Storage Using the Internet

(This is taken from a Slashdot discussion on the topic of long-term data storage. Here is the complete article.)

Dealing with Proprietary Software - Industrial Scale

If the problem of moving information between proprietary systems is daunting on a personal level, try to imagine what it is like for organizations that create large bodies of documentation. For instance, every model of aircraft you see today requires several million pages of documentation which has to be revised and published every quarter. (XML Handbook) The combined documentation libraries of the aircraft industry probably rivals the size of the entire world wide web. Yet every few years the dominant hardware changes, and along with it, the software used.

Governments and law firms are in a similar situation.

Markup Languages

It is precisely these issues, the survival of information beyond the lifetime of proprietary hardware, and moving a large amount of information between proprietary systems, that prompted Charles Goldfarb, with Ed Mosher, and Ray Lorie at IBM to create "Generalized Markup Language" (GML) in the early 1960s.

  • GML
  • SGML
  • HTML
  • XML

Except for GML (which became SGML), all of these markup languages are in wide use today. SGML is used for managing large bodies of textual information. HTML is the language of the World Wide Web, linking documents for human retrieval. XML is increasingly being used to manage large bodies of knowledge, including plant information with ISO 15926.

Most people will not need to know how markup languages are used to manage plant information, but a brief history of markup languages will be interesting for background information.

How We Know and Understand Things

When we go beyond custom-built methods to exchange information between two particular computer applications--when we try to design a way for any two computer applications to connect to each other automatically without having to know anything at all about each other--we confront the question of how we represent knowledge. This is not just sophistry; if two computer systems are to connect to each other automatically, we must have a way to embed the necessary context (the understanding that humans bring) within the data that is being exchanged. For this we need to understand how we know things. The study of how we know things in philosophy and mathematics is called ontololgy.

Philosophy, sufficiently advanced, is indistinguishable from bulls**t.
--Greg Berge


The study of ontology is well beyond what most people will need to know in order to use ISO 15926, and therefore beyond the scope of this primer. However, a brief example to explain what ontology is will be helpful:

Your humble author rides a bicycle to work most days. (Among other things, it lets me indulge in the luxury of eating the fine Ukrainian food my wife cooks for me!) The distance to work makes a nice workout but is beyond walking if the bicycle were to break down. Therefore, I have developed what you might call an Ontology of Things That Will Carry A Bicycle.

Now, in Western Canada, which to most Europeans is but a few years out of the horse age, the pickup truck is king. In Western Canada, all Real Men have pickups. As you can see from Figure 3, there is ample room in a pickup truck to carry a bicycle.

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Fig 3 - Pickup Truck

So it is not hard to imagine that if my bicycle broke down on the way to work, I would try to think of everyone who owned a pickup truck that might have driven it to work that day. Suppose one such friend is Bill, who owes me a big favor. But when I talk to Bill he tells me he can't help me. He tells me he is going camping that weekend and to make a fast getaway he's already loaded his camper. How do I know this will be a problem? Because I know that when you load a "camper" onto a pickup truck, there is no room for a bicycle.

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Fig 4 - Pickup Truck with a Camper Loaded

But hold on! My father used to own a camper for his own pickup truck (he being a Real Man and all), and I remember looking inside it. There was space just inside the door that might be able to fit a bicycle. Alas, Bill tells me, he has already filled the available space with his other camping gear leaving no room.

So with that conversation, I start planning how to get home on public transit. Being a Real Man myself, I own a pickup truck and will have to drive it back to work to pick up my bicycle. But by coincidence, a new engineer, who's just emigrated from the Czech Republic, walks by and overhears my dilemma. He tells me that when he moved to Canada, he brought with him his Felicia Fun. I can't imagine what a Felicia Fun is, but judging by the expectant smile on his face I suspect it might be relevant so I ask him about it. Being new to Canada he doesn't know how to describe it so he says it is like the F150 his friend has, but a bit smaller. (The Czech Republic has Real Men too!) I immediately accept his kind offer to drive me and my bicycle home after work. (Oh, and I owe him a really big favor. Perhaps I will invite him in for Ukrainian food!)

How did I know that a Felicia Fun would carry my bicycle? Because it is "like an F150", which is the name of a particular brand of pickup truck common in North America. Figure 5 shows the relationship of things in my ontology.

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Fig 5 - Ontology of Things That Will Carry A Bicycle

This example is all most people will ever have to know about ontology. But if you are interested in digging deeper, the W3C Consortium has created two languages with which to create ontologies, Resource Description Framework (RDF), and the Web Ontology Language (OWL). Neither are for the feint of heart.

How We Use the Internet to Find Information

The Internet is the enabling technology for sharing plant information easily. (Going back to the flight metaphor, the Internet probably occupies the same place in the interoperability of plant information as does air in flight.) Without the Internet, on top of all the other steps required to transfer information between our software applications, we would have to add the chore of creating a link between each pair of business partners.

But beyond the simple connection between plant project participants, when we try to use the Internet beyond simply calling up web pages, we run into many of the same issues that we run into trying to make plant applications communicate with each other. This brings us to the Semantic Web.

The Semantic Web

The Semantic Web is another topic that most people will not have to know about in order to use ISO 15926. However, it is interesting as background information.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1990, he envisioned much more than what we see today, which is essentially version 1.0. He envisioned an web environment where people could ask their personal digital assistants questions like "Is there a medical doctor near here that specializes in geriatrics who has an open appointment before Friday noon?"--and then go for coffee.

Currently the World Wide Web is built to link documents primarily for human consumption. Computers can process web pages for layout and visual format, but they have no way to process the semantics; to know what they mean. Thus, if you wanted to find a doctor in the example above, you may be able to use the World Wide Web to get a list of doctors and their specialty, and maps with which to judge the distance, but you would still have to call each doctor's office individually to see if she is taking new patients, and if there is a suitable open appointment. Using existing sources of information, one might get lucky and get an appointment with the first call from the Yellow Pages, but it could easily take much longer.

The Semantic Web is all about describing things in a manner that computers can understand, so that you can ask questions like this one and let a digital assistant do the leg work. Using Semantic Web technology, data can be shared and re-used across application, enterprise, and community boundaries.

ISO 15926 uses some Semantic Web technology to describe plant objects in a way that computers can understand. Where it differs from the Semantic Web is in the level of precision. The Semantic Web initiative seeks to map all the legacy data on the World Wide Web in all its chaotic glory to give "pretty good" information. In the field of Plant Design, "pretty good" is a pretty good way to blow things up and kill people. ISO 15926 requires more precise definitions, but uses some of the same tools.

If you are interesting in knowing more about the Semantic Web, here are some references:

How we Store and Exchange Plant Information

Interoperability of plant information between proprietary systems became an issue almost from the advent of CAD in the 1950s. There are many organizations dedicated to interoperability in just about every industry. Interoperability in the plant industry started in the mid twentieth century U.S. defense department, and expanded to include aerospace, automotive, and plant. Included here are some of the more significant initiatives.

Plant Information Interoperability Projects

  • IGES
  • STEP / ISO 10303
    • PlantSTEP
    • PISTEP
    • PIBASE
  • ProcessBASE

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Fig 6 - History of STEP

The Initial Graphics Exchange Specification (IGES)

Computer based graphics systems started appearing in the mid 1950s in the U.S. Defense industry. By the 1970s the Department of Defense wanted a neutral format that would allow the digital exchange of information between CAD systems. The IGES project was started in 1979 by a group of CAD users and vendors, with the support of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), now known as the National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST). In 1980 the NBS published what they called the Digital Representation for Communication of Product . This standard was also published by ASME/ANSI as Y14.26M, which is how many military standards refer to it.

By 1988, any computer aided software vendor who wanted to sell to the DoD had to support reading and writing IGES format files. Since then, IGES has been used in the automotive, shipbuilding and defense industries for small parts up to entire aircraft carriers where the digital drawings have to be used many years after the vendor of the original design software has gone out of business.

By 1994 a competing standard, STEP, was released as an ISO standard. Development of IGES was stopped.


Standard for the Exchange of Product Data (STEP)

The development of STEP started in 1984. The objective was to provide a means of describing product data throughout its lifecycle, independent of any particular computer system.

STEP shares many goals with ISO 15926. STEP's neutral files mean that product data can be archived over many years, and can be shared between different software systems. As well, the standard is implemented within commercial software particular to the engineering discipline, and so will be invisible to the average user.

But STEP differs from ISO 15926 in two important ways:

  • The manner in which templates and descriptions of plant objects are changed: STEP requires a lengthy review before approval of changes, whereas ISO 15926 allows class extensions to be made in as little as five minutes, by trained and approved individuals.
  • The ability to store temporal, or time-related information. Recording changes to a processing plant over its lifetime is outside the scope of STEP.

In 1994 STEP was issued as ISO 10303 Industrial systems and integration - Product data representation and exchange.

STEP's credits include:

  • 1995 - Boeing 777
  • 2000 - GM exchanges parts drawings with suppliers
  • 2004 - Endorsed for U.S. Navy



PlantSTEP was active in the 1990s. It was a consortium of organizations with the purpose of developing and exchanging standards based on ISO 10303. The hope is that these standards will enable concurrent engineering, design, construction, and operation of large facilities by allowing full information sharing among all project contributors. The vision is for all parties to be able to use their own tools and work methods, but to be able to share appropriate information between them seamlessly.

The list of specific benefits mirrors that of all interoperability initiatives:

  • Reuse data
  • Share and exchange data between multiple participants with full integrity and fidelity
  • Lifetime data availability and retrieval at varying levels of detail
  • Owners can receive consistent deliverables from vendors, engineers, and constructors
  • Allows easier plant modification over life of facility


Process Industries STEP Consortium (PISTEP)

PISTEP was created in 1992 to further the awareness of STEP in the process industries. The first phase culminated with major presentations at conferences in London, England in 1993 and 1995. The second phase continued until the end of that decade raising awareness of STEP, by then known as ISO 10303, as well as ISO 15926.

In 2000, PISTEP merged with POSC Caesar, with PISTEP becoming the UK chapter.



Process Industry Executive for Achieving Business Advantage using Standards for data Exchange (PIEBASE) was chartered in the fall of 1996. The intent was to achieve a common strategy and vision for the delivery and use of internationally accepted standards for information sharing and exchange.

PIEBASE is a global umbrella for many process industry consortia active in the development of STEP and other standards for industrial data. Its mandate is the overall coordination of the development and implementation of these standards.


European Union and ESPRIT

One of the main drivers for the European Union, founded in 1993, was to develop a single market for its member states. It has largely achieved this goal through a standardized system of laws, to which all member states adhere, and a common currency, which most have adopted. It is not surprising, then, that the EU is also interested in efforts to standardize the flow of information between its manufacturers. The European Commission saw that the success of Europe itself depended on the ability of its industry to provide competitive goods, and that this success in turn would be helped by standardized methods of exchanging information about these goods. Having had significant participation in STEP already, the EU used the ESPRIT programme to sponsor a significant new part, AP221 Functional data and schematic representation of process plants.

The ESPRIT programme was managed by the Directorate General for Industry of the European Commission. The Directorate General initiated a number of programmes which set the priorities for the EU's R&D activities; ESPRIT was part the the fourth in that series. Running from 1994 to 1998, one of ESPRIT's initiatives was to co-fund ProcessBase.



ProcessBase (alternately spelled Process Base, ProcessBASE, and PROCESSBASE, depending on the source) was co-funded by ESPRIT and a consortium of mostly EU enterprises with two objectives:

  • To promote the use of new technologies in the area of product data, including STEP, and to facilitate data transfer among actors in the process industry.
  • To ensure that Application Protocol AP221, developed by ProcessBase, would interoperate with the Spatial Configuration for Process Plants to be developed by the US PlantSTEP initiative.

In this the programme was largely successful. ProcessBase developed a neutral format based on ISO 10303 and demonstrated the exchange of process plant functional data and schematics between CAD systems, analysis systems, and process plant databases in a pilot project. They contributed the application protocol AP221 to the development of STEP, which helped to solve problems of size and harmonization that plagued previous application protocols.


  • Framatome, France (Coordinator)
  • AKZO Nobel Engineering, NL
  • Bertin et CIE, France
  • Caesar Systems Limited, UK
  • DRAL, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, UK
  • Initec, Spain



Markup languages have a long history in enabling computers to handle large bodies of text properly, without human intervention. When encoded with a markup language, the content of a body of text is separated from format, or appearance of the text. This is an important concept in ISO 15926 where the goal is to embed enough context into the content that we do not need to see the format, or appearance, of the information to know what it means.


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