And what do _I_ think about wireless?

Some people attending the ISA Wireless Summit this week noted that I was capturing in this blog the essence of what was being said by everybody else at the meeting...but what they wanted to know was what Walt Boyes thought. As pretentious as that sounds, I suppose I do have a voice. Why not? I have an opinion on just about anything else. And, in fact, I do have an opinion about the state of wireless, too. The following is what will appear on next week as my August editorial-- and in the magazine as soon as it mails: One Ring to Rule Them All: A Cautionary Tale  J. R. R. Tolkien offered a word of warning about cool things. In The Lord of the Rings he warned of the seduction of technology. The evil demon Sauron made nifty rings which all did nifty things, and he gave them to dwarves, elves and men. Most of them made a bad end. The reason was that while he was making those nifty rings, he was also making "one ring to rule them all, and in the darkness bind them." Recently there have been a spate of product introductions of wireless networks that are intended to be the "one big network" sort of like the Industrial Workers of the World's One Big Union of a century ago. These networks will let you incorporate anything and everything into your control system: hazardous gas sniffers, man-down and personnel location services, other RFID feeds, intrusion alarms, safety shower alarms, and, probably, whether the plant manager is in the bathroom or not.The idea that this is a good thing is kind of like the old joke about the product development engineer, who put lots of things into his products, "because he can."Maybe.We work in the most risk averse part of the high technology industries, and maybe the most risk averse part of the entire manufacturing landscape. If enterprise IT makes a mistake, maybe some emails will be lost, and maybe some financial data will have to be re-created. If we make a mistake, in the petrochemicals, pharmaceuticals, or food industries and the other process manufacturing verticals, it is likely that people either inside or outside the plant will be injured or killed. Makes one pause, doesn't it?Somehow, I think that users will be much more tentative with these "one network" products than the vendors may believe. Especially if the vendors do not cooperate and produce common, off the shelf, interoperable and compatible systems. That's what happened with fieldbus. Faced with a complicated set of choices between a dozen-odd fieldbus standards, end users voted decisively with their feet to remain with HART, and to some extent, Profibus. Why? They are simple, understandable, and are baby steps away from the now-antiquated S50 analog 4-20 mADC standard.The introduction of several "one big networks" in the last couple of months has once again raised an issue certain to confuse the end users, paralyze them, and make them not do anything.Several of these networks make a point of distinguishing between WirelessHART, the recently approved wireless standard of the HART Communication Foundation, and "HART wireless." The latter is supposedly better, since it is part of each vendor's one big network spec, and will probably be included in ISA's SP100 standard probably two years hence when the second revision is released.

Once again, in the name of competition, the end users are being deliberately confused. And once again, they will respond by sticking to what they know. Many will move to WirelessHART, because it is the only approved industry standard for wireless sensing. Few will move to these one big networks. It is far too early for them. Let's walk before we run.

That's what I think!

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  • <p>Walt, the opinions you have about wireless are predicated upon a very durable and selective receiver. However, the ISM bands are getting crowded. As the traffic goes up, the range of these wireless links is going down. Finding the interfering RF sources is not something the average instrument technician is equipped to do.</p> <p>Furthermore, I cringe both from a security and from a reliability stanpoint whenever someone comes forward with the great big network of everything --which is effectively what this is. All it takes is one disgruntled employee to disable the door interlock on a microwave oven, and a sizeable fraction of a plant could be brought to its knees.</p> <p>Finally, the cost of fiber and the associated connectors is still dropping very rapidly. Wiring a network isn't the worst thing in the world. I think most users will discover that in the long run it is cheaper.</p>


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