A Golden Age for Process Control

New Technologies Will Help Deliver New Horizons of Potential for Process Control Engineers

This column is about developing potential, but you may not be aware of just how much potential you have. That's because we're entering what might be termed "The Golden Age of Process Control." In my regular blog for Progressive Strategies (http://blg.progstrat.com/twao/) I call this "The World of Always-On."

The concept is that wireless networking becomes a platform on which all kinds of applications can ride. Some of the ripest fruit here is medical applications. The elements for such solutions come in the form of biochips to monitor a patient, radio chips to transmit data, servers to analyze it, and an Internet Protocol network to send those signals around the home or around the world.

But this is just one application space. Home entertainment is another. And, in the business space, RFID chips are letting merchants like Wal-Mart control the process of their supply chain as never before. You can use either active chips, which contain their own radios and cost a few dollars, or passive chips, which can be read by a radio and cost just 50 cents, and production costs for both are dropping constantly. A factory or warehouse stays in constant touch with component inventory. A store stays in constant touch with what's on, or off, its shelves. Wal-Mart is investing heavily in this space.

These are just a few examples of Always-On technology. But it's really all about process control, with most data gathering and computing done in the background, and with users at computers only when there's something they need to do.

How do we get from industrial process control to Always-On applications that can live in the home, or are cheap enough to use in a store? The answer to that is Moore's Law. I wrote an explanation of Moore's Law and its effect on our lives as "The Blankenhorn Effect" two years ago. We're familiar with Moore's Law in computing,“chips get faster-and-faster, faster-and-faster--but the same effects are seen in optical networking, in data storage, and (thanks in part to actress Hedy Lamarr) in radios. A technology patented by Lamarr in the early 1940s, combined with real-time Digital Signal Processing in the 1980s, resulted in Moore's Law effects coming to the wireless Internet, embodied in the 802.11 standards and sometimes known as "Wi-Fi."

The first Wi-Fi standard, approved just six years ago, allowed networks to be built that moved data at 1 Mbps. The most recent version of that standard, called 802.11g by the IEEE, supports speeds of 54 Mbps, using the same frequency space.

Wi-Fi signals have a limited range, but that range can be expanded with a related technology called 802.16, or Wi-Max. Directional antennas working at higher power and in frequencies ranging from 10-66 GHz can backhaul 802.11 services back to competitive fiber networks, bypassing local carriers entirely, and driving the cost of local bandwidth toward that of long-haul fiber.

This bandwidth is a platform that is hungry for data. However, conventional computer applications,“even video,“can't supply it all. Then consider what Moore's Law is doing to the cost of computers, with 2.6 GHz machines now available for as low as $600. Finally consider what is happening in the areas of sensor networks and software-defined radio and the whole thing starts to knit together.

Sensors might monitor your blood pressure, the moisture content of your lawn, or the condition of the milk in your refrigerator. Radio chips could transmit this data, or collect it (if you're using passive RFID chips), then transmit it, back to powerful servers, which would analyze it and sound the necessary alerts. (You might also call on this database from wherever you are, learning what you need to buy at the store to make tonight's beef stroganoff, or having it ordered for you automatically.)

Where do you come in? The key words in the paragraph above are these: analyze it. The entire Always-On application space is simply process control. The data sets are different, the results are used differently, but the whole space should be familiar to you.

The bandwidth is plentiful, the MIPS are plentiful, the sensor and radio chips are there. All we need is someone to recognize that this is also process control, and work to bring it to reality. That someone could easily be you. If that's not potential, I don't know the meaning of the word.

Dana Blankenhorn is a business analyst with Progressive Strategies Inc., a New York-based market research firm. He has worked in technology journalism for over two decades. His personal Web site is at http://www.a-clue.com.

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