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Wireless Readiness from an Automation Industry User Perspective

Aug. 7, 2008
ISA SP100 Wireless Users Are Ready to Deploy Wireless Sensor Networks (WSNs) within their Facilities
Check out our additional resources:- Wireless Online Guide- The Shocking Truth ABout Wireless- Defining Coexistence, Interoperability and Compatibility- Extending the Sensor Network- Listen to The Shocking Truth About Wireless Podcast

By Larry Pereira

As a follow-up to the first ISA SP100 Wireless survey done last year, Control recently conducted its second ISA SP100 Wireless Survey. The intended audience is the user community. The survey was designed accordingly with that value proposition in mind. Over 100 respondents participated – 105 to be exact. Based on the results, the user community has spoken loud and clear that it is either READY  to deploy wireless sensor networks (WSNs) within their facilities, or at least very comfortable with the idea of doing so.

Wireless has always been known as the disruptive technology, and its reception in the process automation sector reflects that. Just 36 months ago, when asked of the possibilities of wireless sensor networks within the plant, a typical answer was “are you kidding?” and the more polite answer was, “Well, maybe sometime down the line – wink, wink!” Based on the results of the current survey, “down the line…” has been brought much closer by the value proposition that wireless solutions will bring for the process automation sector.

The 2008 survey was written by Control Editor in Chief Walt Boyes and me, with help from Dr. Jose Gutierrez, CTO of Emerson Inc, Dave Kaufman, director of business development, Honeywell Process Systems, and various ISA SP100 committee members. The survey was produced in collaboration with the SP100 committee for its use. The data acquired in this survey is presented publicly here for the first time. The survey was designed with several segments in mind.

The magic of the value proposition

A righteous value proposition generally converts skeptics into believers. It is no different for WSN in the world of process automation for WSN. We have heard about significant “costs” of deploying, managing and insuring wires in a plant environment. We have heard of the ease of over-the-air (OTA) software and firmware changes, as well as the ease of  transmitting and receiving data using wireless PDAs – just to name a few utility-based use cases. The business case behind each of these utilities has been so compelling that it has been difficult for a plant engineer and his or her chain of command to ignore such value propositions for WSN. This has been reflective in this round of ISA100 Wireless survey responses.

The lowest-hanging-fruit applications will most likely be the first to migrate from wired to wireless platforms. For example, according to the survey, the most popular currently used applications of industrial WSN (from a field of 13) are temperature at 78% and pressure at 72%. Next to follow are flow 52%, vibration 48%, gas detection 39%, safety shower 28%, personnel location inside the plant 26% and the rest (dual pressure, moisture, steam, gas measurement, chemical detection,and outside-plant personnel location) being in the vicinity of 20% each.


Historically, internal technology evolution battles between the financial community and the hard-hat wearers have been generally won or lost on the merits of ROI. The response to the ROI question was one of the most intriguing elements of this survey, given the very short timeframe that WSN has been talked about within the process automation domain. The participants in the survey indicated that 66% were ready to convince management of the ROI for a WSN investment, and only about a third (34%) were not ready. This is yet another form of testament that the user community is more informed and confident about WSN migration for its current wired sensor networks. Again, seamless migration and “plug-and-play” will be keys to success.

Training & Vendor Evaluations

Eighty-one percent of our respondants had a good comfort level about working with others  with others internally to define a WSN project. Only 13% were not comfortable, and 6% were unsure. Creating an RFP for “wireless” product procurement was expected to be a challenge to wrestle with. However, 73% said they are comfortable creating an RFP for a WSN project, while 11% are not, and 16% are not sure. When asked of their degree of comfort to evaluate various vendors’ WSN offerings, 76% are comfortable, 16% not comfortable, and 8% are not sure. As for readiness to train technicians and maintenance personnel 57% are ready and 43% are not ready. All answers except readiness to train technicians are statistically close.

Design & Documentation

Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said they are ready to add wireless devices to plant drawings. Twenty-eight percent said they weren’t. Accurately engineering a wireless network is always both a science and an art, but is mostly dependent on the vendor’s design of the software and associated engineering rules. When it came to location of network elements, 71% are ready to determine the location while 29% are not ready. Fifty-three percent of respondents said they need access to ops data from other plant areas; 23% needed plant layout; 16% needed  schematics; 7% needed data from other corporate locations and 2% needed ops data from the yard. When asked of readiness of vendors with their respective documentation, 70% felt the vendors are ready and 30% didn’t know.

IT Dept (Information Technology)

IT is one of the focus areas of this survey. While there were several questions included regarding the readiness of IT departments, overall, 70% of IT departments seem to be working in “collaboration” with plant managers, while 30% required decision-making mandated by higher management, which was less than originally anticipated. However, it is evident that the IT departments are very concerned regarding the security of WSNs. Seventy-two percent said they are concerned, 4% are not concerned, and 24% are unsure. The uncertainty could reflect lack of being informed and intimately involved in the on-going standards development process.

Co-Existence and Interoperability

Although mutually exclusive from the pure sense of technical merits, each of these characteristics tends to have dependencies on the other in the broad sense. The results make it painfully clear that the concern for peaceful co-existence is for real. Nine-six percent of the respondents are concerned of co-existence issues. This should not be a surprise. The Standards Committee has given this topic a high sense of urgency, and rightfully so.

Lessons Learned

Information, education and standardis-based technology solutions are generally key to a successful execution of a fruitful value proposition. It is obvious that industrial WSN solutions have had the benefits of learning from other industries that have evolved over time from wired to wireless platforms. ISA100 and Wireless-HART are paving the way for a new industrial frontier for WSNs. Given where we have been and where we are now (to where we are headed), such a survey about 5 years ago would have yielded almost the opposite results. The ability to provide a “seamless” migration along with plug-and-play from wired to wireless, without compromising security and co-existence issues will ultimately spell “deliverance” for industrial WSN Platforms. A year from now, we will do this yet again and measure the progress 12 months can deliver.

Larry Pereira is president, FlexWorks Solutions Int’l–and Co-Chair of ISA SP100 Marketing Working Group

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