In this month’s episode, Control’s executive editor Jim Montague speaks with Emerson’s Bob Karshnia, vice president and general manager of the wireless division at Emerson Automation Solutions, in the wake of our November cover article on wireless to gain greater insights into how industrial wireless is supporting the Industrial Internet of Things, digitalization and other new, emerging technologies.
JIM MONTAGUE: Hi this is Jim Montague, executive editor of Control magazine and ControlGlobal.com, and this is the second in our new Control Amplified podcast series. In these recordings, we’re talking to different experts about important topics in the process automation and control fields, and try to go beyond our usual print and online coverage to explore some of the underlying issues affecting users, system integrators, suppliers and other professionals and organizations in these industries.
For our second outing, we thought it might be useful to interview Bob Karnia, vice president and general manager of the wireless division at Emerson Automation Solutions, in the wake of our November cover article on wireless, entitled “Open 24/7,” which detailed how wireless supports many of the cloud based, Industrial Internet of Things and other digitalized technologies that have emerged more recently. Bob has been a long-time pioneer and advocate for wireless at Emerson, and I’d be hard pressed to think of somebody who could better trace its history, underlying issues and significance to today’s process industries. Well Bob, sorry for the build-up, but thanks for talking to us today.
BOB KARSHNIA: Great Jim, great opportunity, I’m really excited.
JM: OK, let’s get started. Getting right to the point, did the cloud, IIoT, Industry 4.0 and digitalization steal wireless’ mojo, you know like in the “Austin Powers” movies? But seriously though, wireless doesn’t get all the focus and notoriety it used to, so why is this?
BK: You know, Jim, I think the kind of basis of Industrial Internet of Things or Industry 4.0, is really about getting more data, measuring more things and driving more insights to help optimize your business. Really, the only way to do that in an affordable manner is to use wireless sensing. It’s kind of like adding a security system to your home, if you had to wire in all those sensors all over your house, you’d probably never do it. So, wireless sensors become the basis of these initiatives, that’s what they’re built on, and of course we’re using this technology as the basis for our digital transformation strategy as we help our customers build their roadmaps for deployment as well.
JM: So, then did wireless technology simply mature and gain acceptance to the point that they became ubiquitous and transparent, you know much like the fieldbuses and Internet before them? I mean, we don’t write a lot about copper either, correct?
BK: That’s right we certainly don’t, probably wouldn’t be a very exciting article about copper, but I think just in general, technology becomes broadly deployed as it becomes invisible to the users. If I have to think about it, then it’s probably not going to take off. Many people use cell phones, and we don’t really think about how cell phones work at all, we just use the technology to our advantage. So, to your point, I think wireless is definitely becoming much, much more ubiquitous, which is a testament of how broadly the deployments are going right now.
JM: Well, now of course, I always have to have something to worry about, and I kind of wonder if there’s a cost to that ubiquitous-ness and then the technologies becoming invisible. So, even though wireless is pretty wide spread, there’s got to be some misconceptions about where and how it can be applied. I know some potential users still think industrial wireless will drop communication like their cell phones, so ubiquitous-ness aside, what do users still need to remember? Site audits, for example, are still essential, right?
BK: Well, you know the technology used in wirelessHART is really the idea of a mesh networking technology. It truly makes it easy to deploy, for example you don’t need site surveys at all to actually get it to work. It’s actually much, much more robust than cell phone technology because it can take multiple paths as the data moves through the system, and so the stability of the networks are really, really high compared to what you would see in a cellular network. Almost, I would argue to the point where it’s as reliable, if not more reliable than actually wired systems. But people are trapped by their experiences, we all are. We all feel the frustration of our cell phones not working when we need them. And so, I think this is why we have a lot of work to do to continue training people on what wireless technology can do for them. The good news is we’re moving down a path pretty fast and we see that pace accelerating.
JM: So, even though it’s not as much in the spotlight, wireless must have also gained some new capabilities in recent years that people should know about. What would those include?
BK: Jim, when I think back about wireless, I’ve always told people that wireless is a lot like real-estate, the name of the game in that industry is location, location, location. In wireless, it’s power, power, power. Security is a sort of an anty you have to have to even play the game, but if you can’t solve the power problem, you know how do you run 10 years on a single battery, you just can’t win. So, we’ve been making a lot of good progress behind the scenes on this particular front. So, from our sensors to our communication design systems, the evolution in power efficiency has really been great. And we’ve also added into that this idea of non-intrusive sensors because we know that if I can make something non-intrusive it’s really, really easy to deploy. So, what you end up with is this really powerful combo of non-intrusive sensors that are easy to deploy, secure and operate for a long time on a battery.
JM: I assume that’s like industry wide, Emerson and many of the other folks doing this stuff in the industry. I know the search for the devices that can go for a long time on a AA battery or something, these trends are Emerson and beyond, right?
BK: Absolutely, and the great news is that the technology that’s being developed is being deployed in a lot of industries. You know, a lot of the technology that’s been going on in the industry and all industries around batteries specifically in the automotive industries, where you have a lot of work going on, anode and cathode technologies and improvements associated with that. That’s just flowing directly into our industries, and we’re a great beneficiary of it.
JM: OK. So then, beyond the recent technical advances, wireless is also noted, at least some of the protocols like WiFi, is noted for native encryption, but maybe what are some of the other ways that wireless can help users improve cybersecurity in their applications?
BK: Well, the great news about wirelessHART technology is it was really developed by a, you know, a broad group of industry professionals across all of the suppliers in the industry, all the major suppliers are a part of the initiative, and we had the I guess I would say the foresight but it was really watching what had happened previously with WiFi, where they kind of forgot about security from the start, so we built it in from the ground up. And that encryption kind of goes all the way through the system, such that all communications have really multiple levels of encryption, and I think that’s what’s making it so secure today. So, the key to security is, and this is what we’re focused on, is how to make it easy to use, because if it’s complex, what we find out is people just turn it off. So, by simply focusing on ease-of-use, we’re actually dramatically improving cybersecurity, but as I remind everybody, security is a journey not a destination. So, I think we’re going to be working on that for a long time to come and constantly improving our solutions.
JM: One question I’d like to interject though, and I often ask this in the print stories, is then given the recent evolution of wireless, if I want to implement some of these technologies on my plant floor, what should be on my to-do list or my laundry list? Can we just mention a few things like that?
BK: Sure. I think the key to all of these things, any technology really, is to look at how am I going to use it to achieve my goals? If I don’t have a clear understanding of what technology is going to do to help me then it’s probably not going to actually get deployed well. Sometimes when you think about your cell phone, a lot of that stuff just sort of happens. Not so much with a technology like this, you’ve got to actually think about where am I going to deploy it to get optimal benefits? So, what we recommend is you start with the use cases you’re going to use and then you build a foundation from there about where do I think this whole system can go in the future so that what I put in is actually sustainable and growable for the next decade or two to come, because in our industry, people think in terms of decades.
JM: Cool. Alright, well I guess really to tie things up, based on the recent evolution, how do you see wireless continuing to evolve going forward in the future?
BK: You might actually say that wireless is basically at the point the cell phone industry was in about 1998. It’s pretty early on, now cell phones had been around for quite a while by 1998, but how broadly were they deployed? That’s kind of the question. And I think as we see more and more use cases being found for it, I expect the deployments in wireless to grow dramatically. You know, it was just like when cell phones really took off, really about when the iPhone came out, and people had a chance to see how much more you could do with it, then just thinking about making phone calls, and I believe our new IoT platforms that we’re developing at Emerson will do the same thing. It’s technology that allows us to do that digitalization across the plant, and it’s sort of a platform to get started on to do many things that are based on implementing wireless sensors across the plant. My only wish is I wish I would have been about 10 years younger so I could spend a little bit more time watching this, because it has such an exciting future ahead of it.
JM: Yeah, well it’s kind of ironic, I was thinking that IIoT and industry 4.0 stole wireless’ thunder, but maybe actually those technologies will aid wireless in reaching its full potential like the smart phones did. Is that fair to say?
BK: I think that’s absolutely right. It’s really the start of it and I think what you’ll see now is a really dramatic growth because these new platforms that are coming out, all these digital transformation platforms, allow this technology to be used effectively to actually solve real problems that drive real value to our customers.
JM: Cool. Alright. Well, Bob those were some excellent insights, as I expected. For a technology that’s invisible by definition, I think you certainly brought wireless into the light again, and thanks for talking to us today.
BK: Jim, it was great, thanks for your time.
JM: This has been another in the Control Amplified podcast series, I’m Jim Montague, thanks for listening. Oh, and by the way Control Amplified podcasts are available at the iTunes store and Google Play Podcasts, plus you can always listen to it at ControlGlobal.com, of course. Thanks again.
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