Wireless takes center stage

Vendor playfully shows what the technology offers plants

By Mark Rosenzweig, Editor in Chief

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Recently I’ve attended several large conferences run by automation vendors. Certain topics such as cyber security, control system migration and wireless technology have gotten a lot of attention at all of them.

Detailed technical presentations and user roundtables provided a wealth of information while in the exhibit halls information abounded on numerous commercial offerings. However, dry discussions and product pitches aren’t the only ways to effectively educate potential users.

Consider what took place at the Honeywell Users Group Americas Symposium in Phoenix in mid-June. Wireless technology received considerable coverage. Of course, there were technical talks as well as products on display. But Honeywell did something different, too, to highlight its value — presenting a lively and informative skit called “Becoming Wireless.”

The performance ran about an hour. It featured five Honeywell employees, not actors. Yet, the result was effective as well as entertaining — the Honeywell people clearly were having a good time.

I particularly related to the skit because the main character, Dave (played by Dave Kaufman), is a reporter with an engineering degree. He works at the Daily Planet. We see him dancing to his desk and then putting his feet up and napping until the paper’s demanding editor, Patricia White (Cindy Bloodgood), orders him to visit the plant of Metropolis Industries because she’s heard it’s doing great things thanks to wireless technology (Honeywell’s OneWireless, of course).

Once at the plant, Dave meets Ken (Ken Carfagno), an instrument technician, who takes him into the instrument shop. (The set change involves switching a sign on a desk from Press Room to Instrument Shop — this was a low-budget production!) Ken configures a new wireless temperature transmitter for troubleshooting a heat exchanger. He explains that wireless is low cost and it’s easy to add devices to the network. He also goes over other ways in which he’s used wireless for troubleshooting and some different applications now being considered. Dave asks about security and how the device interfaces to the control system — he is an engineer after all. The two then move to a heat exchanger of sorts where Ken actually installs the transmitter and real data quickly appear on the control system display.

Ken suggests that Dave talk to Jim, an engineer (James Cage). Fortunately, thanks to a instant location system that works seamlessly in the wireless network, they easily track him down. Dave sets off to a “remote” terminal area. He meets Jim who describes how wireless is being used with tankers to measure level, instead of having to send people out to take readings, and to control devices — avoiding endless radio communication and the risk of overfilling.

Dave then heads to the control room (of course, the sign on the desk now has been changed to Control Room) to speak to James, another instrument technician (also James Cage), who looks just like Jim, generating some humorous banter. James has to check out some devices; wireless enables him to do this in the field rather than in the control room. So, they go out into the plant where James uses a mobile station that gives him direct access to instrument and system information, allowing him to configure the device.

Dave returns to the control room to speak to Ben, a field operator (Ken Carfagno). Yes, Ben looks just like Ken. Ben takes Dave with him to start up a distillation feed pump. There, using a portable handheld device he downloads the procedures for the startup, checks out the pump and gives the go-ahead. If a problem developed during startup, he explains, he could stop the pump via the mobile unit and provide information in real time directly back to the control room.

Finally, Dave visits the Honeywell wireless consultant for the plant, Andrew (Andrew Nolan), to get his inputs on what led the plant to deploy wireless.

I’m not doing justice to the amount of useful technical information presented or the humor in the production. Its message that wireless can provide a simple cost-effective solution for a broad range of applications certainly came through clearly.

Honeywell has made the video available online.

Of course, a short skit can’t cover all the potential uses for wireless at plants. Fortunately, at such meetings interesting ideas come up in all sorts of other ways, such as via comments raised after presentations or during informal gatherings. For instance, at lunch one attendee enthused to me about the important role that wireless could play in safeguarding staff working in confined spaces. He looked forward to the day when wireless detectors track levels of dangerous gases while sensors on a worker’s body provide continuous checks of blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs, to forewarn of potential problems.

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