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Organic Wireless Growth Must Be Managed

April 11, 2008
Technologies Compete for Bandwidth.

Wireless applications in the plant environment continue to grow. Unfortunately, that organic growth of wireless devices and networks can become a tangled web of interference, according to Apprion CEO Mike Bradley, who spoke at the 2008 Yokogawa Technology Fair and Users Conference this week in Houston.

“Today it’s many proprietary point solutions.” Apprion CEO Mike Bradley on the evolving nature of wireless applications which three years from now, he estimated, will rely on standards-based, open and extensible frameworks.

“As a plant becomes wireless and those circles get bigger and cover more of the map, it has to be managed,” he explained. “You may have 5,000 points from 25 vendors, and each one has a different configuration and management tool.”

Because so many wireless applications are being added, all on different systems and with varying bandwidth requirements, a plant’s myriad wireless networks need one management system that sits on top to coordinate communication and avoid interference.

“There are many frequencies and protocols for a number of good reasons,” said Bradley. “There are many different application requirements for wireless. Different needs dictate different technologies.”

Technologies such as cellular, RFID, Bluetooth, Wireless HART, WiMAX, Wi-Fi and UWB all are competing for bandwidth. The same goes for the applications. Industrial sensors and gateways, asset tracking, PDAs, VoIP and video cameras all have their own needs in the wireless environment. Combine all that with varied costs and complexity—from passive RFID to proprietary systems—as well as multiple power-consumption levels and you’ve got a roadmap for confusion.

“It’s not just the level gauges,” explained Bradley. “What is needed is a standards-based system that’s open, extensible and industrially rugged. And it needs to work with sensors, access points and networks.”

As early adopters of wireless technology in their plants find themselves trying to unravel and reweave their networks, many of them are revamping their entire plants under one strategic system, while some organizations are still suspicious of the reliability of wireless applications altogether.

One company, the Lower Colorado River Authority in Austin, Texas, needed to resolve its radio-based communications with the public-address system of the Sim Gideon power plant when the two merged. When management received the price for a new hard-wired PA system and realized many of the Sim Gideon systems were reaching the end of their useful lives, it decided to turn the entire plant into a giant Wi-Fi hotspot.
Apprion also estimates more than 45% of the global 76,120 plants that could adopt a wireless infrastructure will in the future. “That’s more than 34,000 plants worldwide,” said Bradley.

Industrial users say their apprehension to adopt wireless technology primarily is because of interference from physical barriers and other RF equipment, along with the perceived difficulty to integrate the applications, according to user studies Bradley presented. In other study results, users cited device interoperability, data security concerns, interference again and the lack of standards as major points of concern.

The value of industrial wireless can be measured by business units in cost of goods sold, safety, security, compliance and sustainability, said Bradley.

Sources of the value can be measured when you analyze it by use. Framework vs. point-to-point and common-device configuration, industrially rugged C1D1 and C1D2 network nodes, and common network maintenance and monitoring, for example, can be used to minimize implementation, operations and training costs and to maximize network uptime and equipment availability, said Bradley. And these uses can be measured in terms of met production targets, number of safety incidents and avoided FERC, OSHA or EPA penalties.

The future of wireless will see the technology continue to expand, explained Bradley. “Today it’s many proprietary point solutions,” he said. “Three years from now, they will be standards-based, open and extensible frameworks. Today it’s process plants. In the future, it will be all industries. Most wireless activity is in North America today. In the future, it will be global.”

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