All Quiet on the Wireless Front

End Users Have Voted With Their Feet, Ignoring Standards Wars and Moving Ahead With Useful Apps

By Walt Boyes

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One respondent said his plant was creating an "alternative field monitoring infrastructure for control-centric platforms." Others cited remote-location monitoring, long-distance measurement, barcode information gathering, inventory control, rotating device monitoring, shop floor tracking, and vibration waveform data. Of course, they also are using wireless devices for more traditional applications, such as tank gauging, weigh scales, control valve actuators, and to supplement so-called "soft sensors" for EPA-mandated environmental monitoring systems (Fig. 4). One respondent cited automating operator rounds through the use of increased wireless field sensors. One respondent said, "We are in the process of implementing WirelessHART in our facilities for improved monitoring and to release I/O due to limitations on points [Editor's note: emphasis added]."

Wireless Tank farmsSeveral respondents said they were working on diagnostic data. We're "revealing trapped HART diagnostics," one wrote.

"We are planning a site-side DCS replacement project, and our wireless standard will depend heavily on the control vendor we choose," wrote one respondent, which we thought was a commonly shared attitude before the survey. That's why we were fascinated by the responses to the question, "Why are you using the protocol you have chosen?" (See Fig. 5.)

Only 22% of people who responded to this question said they would use whichever protocol their main automation vendor was pushing. The vast majority of respondents saw protocol choice as a rather straightforward engineering decision. Fully 65% said they would choose the protocol that was the easiest to deploy or the one they considered the best protocol overall. The message to vendors appears to be quite clear: Deliver whatever wireless protocol the plant has decided to standardize on or lose the project.

Mobility Is the Real Deal

But it is in the area of worker empowerment that wireless is beginning to really shine. Control's estimate of the market split between wireless field devices and wireless mobility tools gives the nod to mobility. We expect as many as two-thirds of all dollars that will be spent on wireless in the next five years to go to mobility solutions. Considering the very large number of sensor applications that could go wireless, the mobility market is substantial indeed, as is the wireless sensor market. In fact, the users are outracing the market even now. The majority of our survey respondents are already using mobile devices (Fig. 6). Only 39% said they did not have a smartphone.

44% of our respondents say they already use their smartphones at work, for work. Another 10% say they are trying to get plant rules changed so they, too, can use them. Only 38% of respondents said they'd never used their smartphone at work. Most admitted to daily use, with 20% confessing to using them all the time.
And what do they use them for (Fig. 7)?

Wireless Protocols

Half of our respondents said they used them to call plant operations or a factory rep with a question or to contact plant maintenance. Just slightly fewer admitted to downloading an instruction manual or service guide. 40% said they used their smartphone to call the control room, and in a display of how much has changed for plant operators in the past five years, almost 21% said they used their smartphone or mobile device to check process variables from the field (and possibly from home or the freeway too). Vendors are plugging using smartphones and mobile devices for everything from control to maintenance to personnel safety and environmental monitoring.

Smart phones

At Emerson Global Users Exchange two years ago, Emerson's CTO, Peter Zornio, showed us a Panasonic handheld PC, the model U1 that had the entire DeltaV operations and engineering suite on it, including AMS asset manager. This existing technology, coupled with existing virtual reality glasses, could free the operator from a control room chair permanently. Invensys Operations Management, for example, has demonstrated a virtual reality simulator that could easily be adapted to real-time virtual reality to use with a system like this. The technology is available today!

But we're trying to deploy all this mobility and all the wireless field sensors in an increasingly crowded virtual space.

The idea of complete mobility and interconnectivity between sensors and systems is great. But how are all those signals going to get around the plant and be managed?


Indeed, the ISA100 committee recognized this several years ago when it set up ISA100.15, a subgroup dedicated to developing a wireless backbone standard under the direction of Yokogawa's Dr. Penny Chen and Dave Glanzer of the Fieldbus Foundation.

Mike Brooks, an entrepreneur and a former refinery process control engineer, that invests in new and emerging technologies that may benefit Chevron operations down the road. The Chevron CTV fund has made significant investments in two wireless companies: Ember, a wireless sensor/radio company, and Apprion, the developer of an industrial wireless application system that includes an open wireless infrastructure, called the ION System, capable of supporting all current and proposed wireless devices and standards.

"Everybody is thinking that Ethernet TCP/IP running on IEEE802.11 will be the backbone," Brooks said at the recent Honeywell User Group Americas, "because that's how business networks are architected, and that's what most IT departments know."

Brooks went on to show how no single slice of spectrum or protocol, even 802.11 (WiFi) or 802.16 (WiMAX) could provide enough bandwidth, reliability and security. "Sorry," he said, "the WiFi network alone will not cut it—really!"

It will take something like Apprion's approach (Honeywell's OneWireless is a similar idea) to an overarching backbone that can transmit live, high-definition video, control signals, safety signals and all the other traffic a plant-wide wireless network is going to have to carry, Brooks said.

"You have to have a plan and you have to use it," Brooks went on. "You cannot grow a functional plant-wide wireless network like Topsy. It simply will not work." As an example, he showed graphics from Chevron's wireless networking plan. "If you don't plan for it, your network will get swamped very quickly," Brooks pointed out. "A wireless 802.11x umbrella is severely limited in bandwidth, shares its channels with the public if they are close to your facilities, and wireless 802.11n is quite aggressive in commandeering the channels it needs, leaving little left over."

Truth be told, for years there have been stories from a variety of sources about plants whose WiFi network space has already become saturated, and in order to add more traffic, something else on the network has to be shut down. And not only does IEEE802.11xx share bandwidth with the public, the ability to secure the network is in question.

The survey respondents are clear. They are diving into wireless, and they aren't waiting any more.

The next installment in the "wireless war" is going to be about IT. 802.11 is what IT departments know. As with plant floor security, business IT departments have a steep learning curve in order to be able to handle real-time date from process networks. Stay tuned.

Download the 2011 Wireless Survey Results.

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