Wireless just as reliable as hardwiring

Dec. 17, 2021
Emerson's Shane Hale dispels wireless myths to focus on network priorities
Wireless wish list

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

It's well-known there are several essential requirements for wireless success, most notably completing site surveys, audits and assessments. These indicate the physical characteristics of each process application, production operation and the settings where they're located. They also determine which wireless protocol and technology is best-suited to its needs, and most likely to be successful and reliable.

However, it's just as important for potential users to give up some prejudices and overcome other mental barriers, so their wireless applications can achieve their full potential.

"We need to debunk the remaining myths about wireless, such as the prejudice that it's hard to implement and program, lacks reliable communications like old cellular phones, or that cybersecurity is a problem," says Shane Hale, global business development director for Pervasive Sensing at Emerson. "When using sensors designed for the industrial applications that use the WirelessHART standard, they're interoperable with different suppliers’ gateways, and devices from different suppliers can coexist on the same network and share infrastructure. Wireless is also just as reliable as hardwiring, with functions like WirelessHART's self-healing mesh that allows devices to seek paths around interference when the environment changes. In some cases, we've seen wireless devices be more reliable, such as when a fire causes physical damage to wiring, the wireless devices continue to communicate what could be critical information. Plus, wireless protocols like WirelessHART have native multi-layered encryption, and are designed with cybersecurity as a core component, unlike consumer-grade wireless networks that aren't built with cybersecurity in mind."

To gain the most suitable combination of wireless capabilities, Hale reports that putting in the front-end work on a site survey remains essential. "Wireless has moved from small, random, dedicated gateway implementations and single use cases to site-wide, managed sensor networks covering entire plants, so users can add sensors wherever they're needed to optimize process or monitor assets without worrying about where or how to connect them," says Hale. "Wireless is just another acceptable way to connect and network devices. It's joined hardwiring as another normalized option, which further enables users do what makes sense for their purpose. Do they need to monitor the process or asset performance, or is it a critical control or shut down measurement? What update rate do they need?”

New network priorities

Hale adds that one of the biggest changes in wireless and its designs lately is the type of thought that goes into network architectures in general due to the emergence of digitalization and other technical shifts. "Previously, everything was connected to the control room, but now applications are bypassing the controls, and connecting reliability measurement software to their business systems," explains Hale. "This affects how users decide what network architecture to focus on, where data goes and who will use it, such as controls, process optimization, quality assurance, or maintenance and reliability."

In addition to shifts in networking priorities, Hale reiterates that wireless has slowly shifted into far bigger applications and facilities, which means much wider site surveys are needed, and they often run across more different types of systems. "We do a lot of projects that combine Wi-Fi for high-bandwidth applications and mobile users and WirelessHART for local sensor networks," adds Hale. "These wireless protocols give users new signals and added productivity. For example, technicians can see data when they're right at a valve using the Wi-Fi connection to the business network. Wireless sensor networks mean they don't have to search for I/O when they want to add temporary or permanent measurements because they're already in the network architecture. Previously, users had to find junction boxes, spare cores for 4-20 mA signals, fix or replace cables, and configure devices in a process that took days. Now, they can determine a need, such as a temperature monitor on an asset, get a wireless device from a “crash cart” of devices, physically install the sensor, and then use a join key to add it to the wireless network. All of this can be done in only be a matter of minutes or a few hours, depending on the time needed to connect the sensor to the process or asset, rather than the time to connect to the I/O."

About the author: Jim Montague
About the Author

Jim Montague | Executive Editor

Jim Montague is executive editor of Control. 

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