Plant of the Future: Whither Wireless?

Futuristic plants aren’t far off and herald even more dramatic changes.

By Jeff Becker, Honeywell Process Solutions

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For a greenfield project, cutting construction by a few days or weeks potentially could mean millions of dollars in increased revenue from earlier start of production. Wireless, because it’s faster to deploy and inherently allows teams to work in parallel, can dramatically reduce wiring and commissioning time for the automation system. The same holds true for plant expansions or other projects that promise increased capacity or efficiency. If wireless technology can reduce project time, then project benefits can accrue that much sooner.

The plant manager also must ensure continuing compliance with safety and environmental regulations. A wireless network enables quick and inexpensive response to changing regulatory conditions. For instance, one facility used wireless to comply with U. S. regulations requiring control rooms to be notified within 10 seconds when a safety shower is activated. Rather than rewire dozens of safety showers to meet this mandate, it deployed wireless sensors; wireless video cameras triggered by these sensors allow safety managers to assess the situation and take appropriate steps.

Looking Farther Down the Road
We’ve been focusing on the very near future. Wireless technology promises to have an even more profound impact longer term. Plants a few decades from now will include things such as three times as many sensing points, increased global collaboration via remote management, and, yes, even robots. They won’t include central control rooms, input/out (I/O) racks or battery replacement.

Let’s take a quick look:

Control without a control room. It’s very realistic to expect that plants built 20 to 30 years from now will be almost entirely wireless. Gone will be the racks of I/O and, with them, central control rooms. By removing the limitations of wiring and taking advantage of advances in virtualization technology, massively redundant control clusters will replace today’s monolithic control systems. Small central monitoring stations, augmented with centralized multi-site control, smart systems and distributed control to individual workers, will supplant the “fishbowl” control room itself. Cutting-edge research exploring these types of architectures already is underway, e.g., for extensive water-distribution networks.

Better power sources and significantly lower overall costs. For years one of the main criticisms of wireless has been battery replacement cost. Likely improvements in battery performance, coupled with use of fuel cells and energy harvesting, essentially will eliminate that cost — and make wireless the choice for more than 90% of plant I/O.

We’re already witnessing a transition from proprietary batteries to standard form-factors, cutting replacement cost to a quarter of previous levels. Clearly, it’s advisable to buy systems that use standard battery types.

Battery life is increasing but now is limited by battery-chemistry shelf lives of 10 years. However, likely improvements in battery chemistry should mean the next battery change will be the last these devices need in their lifetime. In the future, wireless devices may not require battery replacement; they’ll come as sealed units with a 30-year life. The result will be that wireless devices will have essentially no maintenance costs over their lifetime.

In addition, sensors themselves will provide higher levels of wireless communications reliability through meshing technology improvements, better radio performance and system-level redundancy.

Three times the information. Improved battery performance will bring more-flexible sensing capabilities and spur far greater information gathering. The number of sensing points should triple from today’s level. Plants therefore should be prepared to handle the crush of new data that will be generated. They also, before buying a wireless system, should assess whether its architecture supports this level of scalability without a dramatic increase in total cost of ownership.

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