Fieldbus / Wireless

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

August 2011 CoverEnd users are overwhelmingly voting with their feet—and their dollars. All that's left is to carry off the dead and treat the wounded. As we do on a regular basis, we've surveyed our readers, and we've talked to vendors, gurus and end users, and we've put together an objective picture of where things are and where they are likely to be in the short term and near-long term.

For the record, the survey was conducted in June 2011 and received responses from over 900 respondents, of whom 92% were end users, consulting engineers, A&E or EPC engineers, or system integrators. Responses were similar to's demographics, with somewhat less than 47% from North America (Canada, U.S., Mexico) and roughly split 10% from EMEA (Europe, Middle East, Africa), 5% from Central and South America, and the balance from Asia.

What a Long Strange Trip It's Been

If you're of a certain age, you recognize this line from "Truckin'"—one of the most popular Grateful Dead songs of the 1970s. The song is old, but the sentiment isn't, as far as the use of wireless is concerned. For the past five or six years, we've been paying much more attention to the war over wireless field network standards than we probably ought to have. As we have strained at gnats and swallowed camels in the standards bodies, the end users have been studying the situation, making decisions and starting to implement their wireless strategic plans (Fig. 2).

Wireless Networks in Plants

We expected, as we have in the past surveys, to see a lot of hesitation based in part on the outcome of the standards conflict. We found, somewhat surprisingly, that over 43% of those responding to the survey said they already have been using wireless field networks, and another roughly 27% said they are thinking of using them in the next one to three years (see Fig. 1). That's remarkable penetration of a market that appeared to be mired in controversy just a year or so ago. Only about 11% said they were undecided about which protocol to use and were going to wait to see which one won.

Wireless War

When asked which wireless networks these pioneers use now, their answers were revealing (Fig. 3). Over 50% said they used 802.11x networks for wireless communications. 34% said they used one or more proprietary wireless networks. The use of IEC62591-WirelessHART continues to grow at 23%. Bluetooth networks came in at a surprising 18.2%. We suspect that these are probably being used with smartphones or tablets—but several respondents commented they were using Bluetooth-equipped HART modems. ISA100.11a devices and networks lost ground substantially since our last survey, coming in at 4.4%, and Zigbee was the last of the pack at 1.47%.
So the lineup looks to be 802.11x networks supplemented with Bluetooth for wireless communications, IEC62591-WirelessHART and several proprietary field sensor networks for devices. Most vendors and end users are betting on that lineup.

Wireless Networks Now

Wireless Sensor Networks Now

"If you are actively buying wireless sensors now, which protocol are you using?" we bluntly asked our readers. Once again, proprietary networks and WirelessHART led the pack for field devices, while 802.11x networks were the choice for wireless communications.

Since last year, the number of wireless field device vendors has soared. There are several ISA100.11a device vendors, and there are over a dozen WirelessHART device vendors. This bodes well for bringing the price of wireless devices and gateways down. Several respondents complained that the price of wireless devices was so much higher than the wired variety that they weren't happy. "We have not found a case where it is cheaper to deploy [wireless]," wrote one respondent. "Cost is a concern," wrote another. "We're not using wireless field devices primarily because we are a 30-year-old plant that only adds or replaces a few transmitters per year. We already have wires where we need them, and if adding a few new devices, it's still cheaper to pull cables than to do the engineering and install infrastructure for a wireless network," another respondent wrote.

So what applications are end users actually deploying wireless devices for? 61% of respondents said they were using them to extend the plant information network with traditional sensors (flow, level, temperature, pressure, etc.). 39% said they were using wireless devices to improve maintenance. 24% said they were using them to improve worker safety with man-down, location, gas detection and remote alarms, and 23% said they were also using wireless devices to extract non-traditional process values. A wildly pioneering 6.48% claimed to be using wireless devices for ESD and SIS systems.

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.