Wireless challenges for 44% of all measurements

Dec. 22, 2008
Yokogawa’s European User Conference in Barcelona 2008

It would be difficult to exaggerate the contrast in the approaches taken to the vexed subject of wireless at Yokogawa’s European user conference in Barcelona in the last week of September and Emerson Exchange in Washington, D.C. a few days later. While Yokogawa seemed reluctant to talk about the subject at all, at least to the press, Emerson didn’t seem to want to talk about much else, with no less than 18 workshop presentations, an entire press conference and a significant part of John Berra’s keynote address devoted to it. Nor did their preoccupation stop at talking – a network of 70 wireless transmitters spanned the enormous conference hotel atrium and the surrounding area, and wireless demonstrations took pride of place in the accompanying exhibition.

Both reactions were entirely understandable, given the current state of play over the ISA 100.11a wireless standard, currently being balloted with a view to release later this month. Yokogawa’s position is that it would prefer a single standard in the form of ISA 100.11a; Emerson’s is that we already have a standard, and that standard is WirelessHART.

Those two positions have to be seen in the light of the fact that, whereas Yokogawa is saying that it will be ready to ship wireless products next year, Emerson shipped its first WirelessHART-compliant products from its Chanhassen, Minn., facility in September. It’s also worth noting that ISA 100 embraces far more than device networking, and that there seems to be broad agreement on the approach to be adopted on pretty much every other aspect. So this is not so much an argument about the broader issues of wireless, but about whether the ISA 100 committee can swallow its pride and accept that WirelessHART, with whatever imperfections it is perceived by them to embody, has already achieved a level of momentum which is probably unstoppable and should therefore supersede its own proposals for device networking. That solution, incidentally, seems to enjoy widespread support from users including such heavyweights as BP.

Unseemly haste

Whether Yokogawa actually gets its single standard and, whether, if it does, that standard embodies WirelessHART will remain uncertain even after the publication of ISA100.11a. A number of those attending the Emerson event expressed deep concern at what they regarded as the unseemly haste with which the ISA committee had moved to a ballot on what they see as a deeply flawed draft and were seeking to have the ballot deferred and the draft further revised. Yokogawa for its part anticipates that “the ISA 100 specification will be released later this year.”

Inevitably, the situation is giving rise both to confusion and a good deal of name-calling and the attribution of dubious motives. Emerson Process Management chairman, John Berra, seemed to imply dirty tricks when he said he “took particular exception” to the suggestion by one industry leader that WirelessHART technology is all the vendors’. “The person advising that individual needs to be replaced with someone who is better acquainted with what’s going on.”

Meanwhile others have suggested that opposition to WirelessHART and support for ISA 100 is primarily a delaying tactic aimed at eroding Emerson’s current lead. Emerson, on the other hand, as the first vendor to have WirelessHART-compliant products actually available and with what it claims is the “most extensive wireless product portfolio in the world today” is clearly keen to drive home its advantage as rapidly as possible, and purports to find it hard to understand quite what all the fuss is about.

“What’s going on here?” asked Berra in his keynote address at Emerson Exchange. “Last fall WirelessHART was approved not by a handful of companies, but by all of the industry. Sixteen companies have announced WirelessHART products including the number one company in systems, the number one company in valves and the number one company in measurement. IEC has approved it as a Publicly Available Specification (PAS). Is there any real reason to talk about anything else?”

Well, yes there is, say Yokogawa and, presumably, others such as Honeywell. But the key question for users must be what will happen if we do finish up with two standards. Would, for example, Yokogawa only support ISA 100 or would pragmatism take over? “Our position is that there should only be one wireless standard,” said Henk van der Bent, Yokogawa Europe’s field networks marketing manager. However, in the event that there are eventually two standards, Yokogawa’s current position is that “On the system side, we will have to support both, but on the product side we will only support ISA 100.” Whether and for how long that position would be sustainable were WirelessHART to be become the de facto standard for field devices, remains open to question.

Where both Yokogawa and Emerson do agree is on just how important wireless is going to be. “We do expect it to be a big business,” said van der Bent, in itself something of a shift in position from the view expressed some years ago by former president Isao Uchida that high speed fiber optics offered the most promising way forward for the process industries. “Users currently only implement 10% of desired measurements because of cost. Wireless reduces the cost and so increases the number of measurements that can be made.”


He also sees enormous potential for wireless in remote off-site applications, but he does introduce a word of caution from a European perspective. “The chemical industry is very reluctant to consider wireless technology because of safety and security considerations,” even though it has already been proven to be safe in critical applications such as medicine.

How big does Emerson expect it to be? “I believe that we will start to see as much as 20% of all measurements being made wirelessly within five years,” Berra said in his keynote address, but was happy to acknowledge, when questioned at the subsequent wireless press conference, that he had deliberately pitched the figure at a low level to maintain credibility. In fact, according to chief strategic officer Peter Zornio, the figure might be as high as 44% on grass roots projects.

That press conference was devoted primarily to highlighting existing experience of wireless products, including BP’s pioneering installations at its Cherry Point Refinery in Washington state in the U.S., which is now to be emulated at other BP refineries in North America, Europe and Australia, and the finalists in Emerson’s Wireless Innovation Awards scheme.

Winner of the Award was Croda for an application involving temperature measurement on rail cars at its Mill Hill, Pennsylvania, facility. Other finalists included CFE LAPEM which provides measurement services to the Mexican power industry; U.S. paper manufacturer Boise, which is using the technology to monitor eye wash and safety shower stations; Brazilian steel producer Usiminas for measuring bearing temperatures on a hot strip mill; and Massachusetts-based biotech company Genzyme, which is using the technology to monitor temperatures in cold rooms for compliance purposes.

Many of these measurements could not have been made by any other means, while others exhibited cost savings compared with conventional technology of typically up to 40%. Common to all were ease of installation and high reliability with figures such as 99.99% being quoted. Building on their experience, all of the companies involved said that they had plans to expand their usage of wireless, particularly in areas where no existing infrastructure is available, while Denny Fetters of Croda said that he had “absolute confidence in the system” and was already prepared to “include WirelessHART in process control.”

Most significant, however, for those concerned about the implications of disagreement over standards or indeed those seeking to gain commercial advantage from such disagreement, is that not one of the panel of users answering questions at the press conference considered that a failure to agree on single standard would in any way affect their decision to exploit the technology.