Wireless Comes of Age

Even in the Notoriously Conservative Process Industries, Wireless Has Moved Past the Early Adopter Stage and Into Day-to-Day Operations

By Nancy Bartels

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August 2012 CoverIt is a truism that the process industries are slow to adopt the new. As Process Hall of Fame member Dick Caro says in a recent article on variable-frequency drives for this magazine ("A Failure to Communicate"), "We have always understood that process control . . . is very slow to accept new or innovative technology. In spite of the many innovators who thrive in the process control industry, the folklore is essentially correct. We insist on proof that some new or innovative technology offers a measurable user benefit and that it be demonstrated in several plant locations."

That's certainly been the case with wireless in process operations. In spite of the best efforts of some of the biggest names in process automation, such as Emerson Process Management and Honeywell Process Systems, organizations such as ISA and the HART Communication Foundation, and a lot of media hype and users' real-world experience with it in their private lives, wireless has been a tough sell in process plants. 

But that is finally changing. Earlier this year, Global Automation Research released the results of a survey of end users of wireless process instrumentation transmitters and found that 67% of those surveyed were using them, compared to 43% in 2008, an increase of 50% in just four years. Furthermore, wireless technology has moved from small test applications and simple monitoring to safety, asset protection and mainstream problem solving—and even some control. Furthermore, 63% of the respondents worked for companies that had considered using wireless, up a full 20 percentage points from 2008. The number of respondents working for companies that have decided against using wireless dropped to 4% (see Figure 1).

The survey also reported that 40% of the respondents' companies have been using wireless for more than a year, and 15% for more than 4 years (See Figure 2). The dominant application of wireless remains field monitoring, including tank farms, remote water and wastewater facilities, field data collection, temperature profiling, leak detection and flare monitoring. But safety and environmental monitoring is up, while wireless for process monitoring remains unchanged over the last two years at a little over 20%.

The benefits reported include savings on materials and labor, increased efficiency, increased data accuracy and easier maintenance. One of the respondents summed up the savings for his company this way: "[Wireless is a] very cost-effective method to bring additional points into the control system. We are seeing wireless installation costs about 70% less than a similar wired installation."

Joseph Citrano, global wireless product marketing manager for Honeywell Sensing and Control, says, "What we're seeing over the last year is that the early adopters have gone through the experiment and are implementing it [wireless] in a meaningful way. More people, who are followers, are just getting their feet wet. They're doing fewer applications, but there are quite a few folks doing more and more."

It looks like wireless is finally meeting Caro's criteria of measurable user benefit demonstrated in several plant locations. 

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