The Jim Pinto Column: The wireless revolution is a new automation paradigm

May 2014 News

The wireless revolution is allowing millions of previously unmonitored measurements to become connected to industrial networks. This has started to generate significant new markets in the industrial automation world, with growth and success beyond past automation paradigms.

Today’s technology holds the potential for installation of wireless products throughout a factory or process plant to yield information that can improve operations and profitability. There are a huge number and variety of different measurements that industrial applications want and need to monitor. Some of these include equipment health monitoring for less critical process equipment (pumps, heat exchangers, filters, steam traps, heat tracing lines and the like), monitoring remote auxiliary equipment, continuous monitoring of measurements that are now logged manually, real-time power usage of remote installations and more. In some applications, return on investment is measured in days and weeks – not years. Now that is market-pull!

Then there is the vast number of previously ‘un-measurable’ categories – rotating kilns, portable skids, railcars and other moving equipment, and applications where the environment is too hot or electrically noisy for wired measurement. While these may actually be quite important for use directly in process control, they often turn out to be unreliable ‘rats nests’ in difficult environments. Wired systems keep getting more expensive and difficult to install, while wireless monitoring keeps getting cheaper and easier.

Many measurements were previously not accessible because wiring costs were prohibitive. But now they become cost justified because of the dramatically lower installation costs and faster start-up. These are the ‘if only we had this’ measurements.

It is important to remember that, while some of the major automation companies are primarily focused on the benefits of wireless-enabled versions of conventional field devices, the full range of potential applications of wireless technology is considerably wider and deeper. Some of the biggest industrial markets remain hidden in plain sight.

Wire-replacement will likely be the last domino to fall – just like replacing or eliminating wired home phones has been the last frontier for cell phones. The future of wireless in factory and process automation could well turn out to be a battle between those who use it incrementally – in effect to replace copper in conventional applications – and those who use it imaginatively to reshape the applications themselves.

Wireless standards

A bewildering variety of technology choices are available – WiFi (IEEE 802.11) is common with laptop computers as well as tablets and mobile phones. The industrial version, ISA-100 has tweaks to assure reliability in harsh environments. WirelessHART, the other primary industrial standard, is used to support and extend the several million field-mounted transmitters that are already in use worldwide.

WiMax (IEEE 802.16) provides high-throughput broadband connections over longer distances. Some industrial product developers are offering WiMax for industrial applications like electric grids (in the US the Smart Grid), oil & gas, aviation and smart cities.

For connecting large numbers of I/O points in factory or process installations, Zigbee networks (IEEE 802.15.4) are emerging. The significant advantages are very low power, minimal resource requirements, good transmission range, adequate bandwidth for industrial applications, unlimited network size, high reliability and low cost. Look for Zigbee to generate significant growth in a variety of industrial applications.

Bluetooth uses less resources and power than WiFi, but has transmission range of only about 10 metres. It is best suited for elimination of cables between line-powered equipment and close-by extensions (e.g. printers). In factory and process plants, it is typically used to connect control-room devices.

Wireless futures

The eventual goal for industrial wireless will be to network devices that are self-sensing, self-controlling and self-optimising, automatically and without human intervention. This is the Internet of Things (IoT), what GE calls the industrial Internet, forecasted to be the next huge growth arena. This represents completely new applications for information technology that will totally subsume previous business models.

Wireless connectivity will eventually reach tens of billions of connections, adding significant value for industrial suppliers and end-users alike. Just as the Internet allows access to digital information anywhere, wireless sensor networks will provide vast arrays of real-time, remote interaction with the physical world. The industrial automation business will be generating significant growth in this new arena.

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