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Wireless grows up

Dec. 28, 2021
As wireless applications multiply, acceptance and comfort levels rise, prices drop, and new capabilities are discovered. Suppliers including Endress+Hauser, Fluke, Freewave, Honeywell, Yokogawa show how it's done.

Wireless is no longer new and unusual. It's many versions and formats have proven themselves time and again, and it's finally earning widespread respect and acceptance from users in the process industries. Here's how some major suppliers describe its expanding presence, demonstrate it to users, and deploy it.


For instance, during the October opening of Endress+Hauser's USA Customer Center near Houston, Jerry Spindler, U.S. customer training manager, demonstrated its latest Process Training Unit (PTU), including several WLAN and Bluetooth devices that communicate with and advance the capabilities of its usual flowmeters and other transmitters, so users can learn their operating concepts and practice using them. The PTU is also equipped with a new, loop-powered WirelessHART FieldPort adapter from Endress+Hauser, which has built-in Bluetooth, and lets users walk up and wirelessly connect to many devices (Figure 1).

"The WirelessHART adapter sends data from our transmitters and other edge devices to an Endress+Hauser FieldGate SWG 70 gateway, and upward to the Internet and Endress+Hauser's Netilion cloud-computing service. The gateways also relay instructions and information via EtherNet/IP back to each control panel’s network switch and to FieldEdge edge devices, and use Endress+Hauser's cloud service to access data at the edge. We already use the PTU to teach students about process measurement and control, but the digital network with wireless makes it an IIoT lab, too."

Wireless wish list

This article is part of the Wireless Wish List series on industrial wireless networks. View the rest of the series here.


Not surprisingly, wireless is on the same trajectory as other technologies that are typically more costly when introduced, but come down in price as they gain acceptance and become more widespread. Likewise, wireless sensors and their users are also benefiting from more capable batteries and longer-distance connections to gateways, according Samantha LeSesne, senior product manager on Fluke Reliability's engineering team.

"Like any wireless technology, vibration sensors need an optimal connection to deliver their data, so they need to follow best practices for establishing and maintaining those links," says LeSesne. "This begins with talking to the IT department as part of a site and equipment assessment to make sure local protocols are capable and available, even though many of these devices are becoming more plug-and-play. Wireless sensors and other devices can then provide data continuously, so users don't always need staff right nearby. This allows smaller teams to also prioritize tasks more easily."

LeSesne also reports that one of Fluke’s wireless sensors doesn't need batteries. Its 3562 screening vibration sensor can display data and alarms, while drawing power from an energy harvester that taps into a machine’s heat or even ambient lighting. The 3563 analysis vibration sensor can also indicate common faults. Once their hardware is in place, their software and Internet applications can deliver data via wireless to gateways and cloud-computing services for analysis and optimizing production. Their services include web-based applications, such as Fluke's Live-Asset Portal, powered by Amazon Web Services (AWS), which users can access via any Internet-enabled interface.

"Especially during COVID-19, many users have needed improved, remote user experiences (UX), so they can access their data," adds LeSesne. "Wireless is the key to Fluke Reliability's vision, and will be the way forward for many processes and facilities, whether they're optimizing with vibration sensing or looking at thermal images."


"Industrial users have been getting more comfy with using cellular, satellite and other wireless technologies because they can go where nothing else exists to collect and redistribute data. For instance, our wireless devices are in most U.S. oil fields, which are tough to connect in most cases," says Parthesh Shastri, CTO and production head at Freewave Technologies. "In the past, gathering information on an infrequent basis was OK because data needs were limited to driving a few tasks, leading to low volumes of data needed. However, those volumes have been increasing because machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) applications rely on more data to create models to optimize today's operations. Consequently, users are turning to wireless telemetry for remote assets to connect more of them to their cloud applications with minimal operational disruptions, while securely collecting increasing amounts of required data."

Shastri reports that most facilities and processes are diverse with geographically dispersed operations, but a single wireless format, such as Wi-Fi, 900 MHz or cellular, can't cover all their use cases. "The question is what combination of wireless connectivity options do they need for the best performance?" asks Shastri. "Does it provide the right range, power consumption, form factor and more? Do they have the right combination of backhaul for their data?"

On the components side, Shastri adds that users previously designed and arranged wireless applications from scratch, such as connecting level sensors, PLCs, wireless devices and HMIs. However, as their applications and facilities expand and time grows short, he explains they're less concerned about the pieces, and instead want unified solutions that can give them the signals, parameters and data they need. Users are looking at eliminating repetitive work and delivering a ready-to-use application. "We can help in these situations because we provide packaged product stacks, like Lego blocks," says Shastri. "Using a combination of our radios and gateways with edge analytics, we can tailor our product stack to deliver the outcomes users want by bringing their information from assets in the field to a safe environment like a data center."

Shastri confirms that planning for wireless telemetry combines solving for the present needs, while accounting for future growth in use cases and network usage. "Users need to determine their data needs, latency requirements and range, among other things” he explains. "There are now a large variety of connectivity choices—cellular, ISM, satellite, Wi-Fi and more. Use the right combination of connectivity options tailored to your application needs.”


"Wireless is one of the building blocks of a connected world, where edge computing and data analytics continue to create the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT)," says Hamed Heyat, VP and GM of Honeywell Smart Energy Solutions North America. "In the next 10-20 years, everything will be increasingly hyper-connected from the field to the cloud, and 5G and 6G wireless and LoRaWAN will be among the big steps needed to get there. They'll provide the scalable, reliable and cyber-secure wireless that anyone can use anytime."

To pick the right wireless solution from today's multiplying options, Hayat reports users must first decide what they want it to do for them, how much data they need to send, and how fast they need to deliver it. This will determine if they need radio frequency (RF) mesh, cellular or a LoRaWAN topology, which will indicate how many access points they need, as well as what's affordable and what they're willing to maintain.

"Wireless was mainly RF until a few years ago, when owner-operators began using more cellular, but then their endpoints multiplied and costs went up. Cellular also expanded in advanced metering and infrastructure (AMI) applications," explains Heyat. "LoRaWAN has many advantages, but it's drawback is the limited amount of data it can transfer. It can't help some high-level applications, and it's generally used for intermittent communications and report-by-exception situations."

Despite these limitations, Heyat concludes that wireless connectivity continues to grow exponentially, especially among utilities, and more recently due to COVID-19 and added links needed by residential, business and industrial users. He adds that Honeywell's PowerSpring meter data management (MDM) firmware lets users and devices talk to other protocols and components.

"Users want remote access to their relays and other equipment because they can't send crews out to every point," says Heyat. "However, they're also recognizing that they need cybersecurity to make remote connections securely, and allow them to do remote management safely."


Despite recent advances in wireless capabilities, many process instrumentation and control users are still way behind on using it, according to Anu Mahesh, senior product manager for wireless at Yokogawa. "The process industries prefer hardwiring, so there's a stigma against wireless and mistrust of it that continues. In addition, when wireless came to the process industries in the late 1990s, it started out with some kinks that solidified the mistrust against it. However, over the last 20 years, most of those kinks were worked out, WirelessHART and ISA100 proved their value, and LoRaWAN is resolving more of those old issues. Now, there's a mix of all kinds of wireless from the edge to the cloud, and cabling costs more than ever, so it's a good time to upgrade to wireless infrastructures."

Mahesh agrees that users can't simply install any type of wireless, and must evaluate what they're trying to accomplish and what level of performance they'll require to determine what wireless format will work best for them. "If you need lots of data quickly, then you'll need more wireless bandwidth. If you need less and not as fast, then you'll need less bandwidth," says Mahesh. "Users that don't settle these issues won't be happy with their wireless and will say it doesn't work. For example, our Yokogawa Sushi sensors run on LoRaWAN, but we always consult with users on what they want it for and where is the right place for it, and they're thankful because they don't want a failure on their hands."

Mahesh reports that LoRaWAN can be used with gateways and endpoints on private networks. Or it can run on public networks, which are popular in Europe, where users subscribe in the same way they sign up for smart phone service. However, even though these networks are newer, transmission frequency is still the key to their success because it affects data rates, transmission distance and the ability to penetrate obstacles.

"Maybe you're in pipe jungle where Wi-Fi won't work, or you need to transmit data from somewhere on the edge that's too far for other protocols, and you need more range to get data back or to keep rates from dropping," says Mahesh. "With shorter-range WirelessHART and ISA100, users need more gateways, and have to figure out where to place access points for to make sure their area is covered. The beauty of LorRaWAN gateway is its long range, so users don't need added access points, antennas or repeaters. They may not even need to do a site survey. They can get full coverage by just putting a LoRaWAN gateway with a built-in antenna in the middle of their site and immediately linking their sensors."

Mahesh adds that most wireless networks are highly configured, so users can set and adjust them how they want. However, she adds that a successful wireless deployment includes handling non-technical issues, such as training staff to manage and maintain it. "We work with users, and show them the reasons why we place wireless devices in certain locations, such as providing multiple paths, or addressing where equipment may be moved in the future," adds Mahesh. "Wireless is trustworthy, but it just needs an upfront plan to avoid pitfalls."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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