Wireless: A Field Guide to Industrial Wireless

No Other Technology Has Been Written About, Trumpeted by Vendors and Snipped by Critics Like the Use of Wireless Communications in the Process Industry

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Venerable automation sage and chairman of the board of Yokogawa Electric, Isao Uchida, is also less than sanguine about wireless in the plant. “We have invested heavily in the production of high-speed, fiber-optic networks,” he said at last year’s user group meeting and Tech Fair. “Critical data will always move on wires.”

Jake Brodsky, of Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, and an automation, controls and SCADA expert, said in a recent post on the SCADA mailing list, “Folks, I like radios. I’ve been fascinated with them since I was five years old. I tinker with them to this day as an amateur radio operator. However, there is a place and time for everything. And in my opinion, unlicensed wireless gear is not suitable for plant control system infrastructure of any significance.”
Brodsky went on to explain his reasoning. You can read the entire post on Sound Off!, the Control Editors’ Blog.

However, these concerns aren’t keeping Uchida, Storey or Runckle from investing heavily in wireless products.

Will Ethernet Sneak In and Win?

In early 2007, a small company in San Francisco, Arch Rock Corp., introduced the first commercial implementation of IP (Internet Protocol) over low-power wireless. Using the same basic radio standard that WirelessHART, Zigbee and S100.11a are using (IEEE 802.15.4), Arch Rock’s technology enables standard IP communication over wireless, directly from the sensor.


Invisible Umbrella

Figure 2
Lost Pines Power Park uses an overall WiMax umbrella, WiFi access points and wireless speakers to unite two facilities.

Cisco’s Mark Wylie noted in a meeting in June that Cisco’s “First Mile Wireless” would stop at the field controller, primarily because that’s where industrial networking has always stopped. Having sensors with the ability to communicate using IP-over-Ethernet would make it possible to bypass all of the proprietary and semi-proprietary fieldbus networks, such as Profinet, and Foundation fieldbus. ARC Advisory Group’s Harry Forbes has written an ARC Insight on this technology. It is available at www.controlglobal.lopan.html.

No one can afford to bet against Ethernet. It has become the one true network protocol because it is ubiquitous, and it is ubiquitous because it works, it is scaleable, upgradeable and easily implemented. This self-fulfilling prophecy has brought the cost of even industrially hardened gigabit Ethernet managed switches down to the low thousands of dollars, and commercial-grade products down to the low hundreds. Many industrial operations even use consumer-grade Ethernet switches hubs and routers in non-critical applications because they are inexpensive enough to be “throwaways.”

How to Set Up a Wireless Plan

“It’s all about the network! Sounds like a Verizon commercial, but it’s true,” says Honeywell’s Kaufman. “Just as cell phone customers are ramping up their wireless usage to download videos, send text messages, receive emails and, oh yeah, make phone calls, so are industrial customers ramping up their usage of wireless. But as they begin to do that, they’re discovering a limit to the available bandwidth and functions they can execute.

“Most industrial systems today are using the ISM bands, which can only do so much, for wireless communications. So when every department in the plant wants to use those wireless bands, you get a very uncoordinated, unplanned train wreck of band usage. You limit what you’re doing now due to lack of optimization, and severely limit any future usage. If you don’t plan the usage of the wireless bands in your plant today, you’re planning to fail in the future. I highly recommend that customers develop an overall wireless plan for their facility. Take into account every department’s needs, and plan, plan, plan. You want to ensure you are using a very limited resource in the best way possible to produce the greatest results for your operations.”

Cherry Point’s Gering agrees. “We set up a plant wireless governance group to deal with this issue. I am on it; the I&C supervisor is on it. There’s somebody from IT on it, and the guy who is in charge of our Maximo CMMS system is on it, and a couple of others. Basically, if you want to bring a wireless device onto the plant site, you have to bring it through us.”

That’s a very good first step.

Winning at Wireless

Once you’ve established a wireless technology authority for your plant, it’s time to look at what you can do with wireless. First, survey what you’re already doing. You will likely be surprised at how much wireless is already in use at your plant. Then look at all of the process and process-related activity you would like to monitor wirelessly. Add to that some of the other non-process activity like personnel location, building automation, fire and gas safety and physical security that you might want to add into your systems either immediately or later. Put together an overarching plan, and then carry it out.

Many end users we’ve talked to say they plan to do what Marty Gering at BP Cherry Point says. “I think it is a good idea to start small,” Gering said. He recommended trying one of the starter kits from Emerson. Honeywell’s OneWireless offering also comes with a starter kit, so end users can experiment, and not get too deep into the wireless pool.

Wireless may well be the next inflection point, but prepared end users will stay on top and in control.



Plenty More Where This Came From

For  more information on wireless and the complete results of our wireless survey, go to www.controlglobal.com/wirelessguide.html

For Survey Snapshots Wireless Users click here.

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