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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Improved control and other algorithms and expert systems potentially could serve to sift through the data to pinpoint opportunities for increasing operating efficiencies, safety and flexibility while reducing emissions, operating costs and surprises.

The daily routine. Workers in the plant will spend their days quite differently. With live data at their fingertips anywhere in the plant, they’ll be able to operate much more effectively than they do today. Seeing something suspicious, such as unusual machine vibration or a gauge reading higher than normal, they’ll use “lick and stick” sensors they’ll carry to quickly capture new measurements. In many plants, wireless devices will completely replace manual dial gauges. Additionally, high-speed wireless links will enable plants to call upon experts throughout the world to help solve problems. Such links also could allow robots to handle particularly remote, tedious or dangerous jobs.

These developments promise to dramatically improve safety by enhancing ability to detect upsets and hazardous events (such as gas emissions) and minimizing dangerous jobs through superior automation.

How Do We Get There?
At many companies the question isn’t whether they’re interested in wireless but how to get started with the technology.

For greenfield projects, many chemical makers simply will compare wired versus wireless quotes to determine their future directions. In almost every case wireless saves significant capital. In facilities being designed today wireless sensors suit 40%–60% of I/O points.

Many brownfield installations begin with a small pilot project. An application that offers substantial costs savings and relatively low risk, such as equipment health monitoring or tank farm automation, will let the plant learn about the wireless technology and determine how else to apply it (Figure 1).

A common approach for piloting equipment health monitoring is to pick eight to 10 “troublemaker” assets that incur high repair costs. For process engineers, a good place to start is identifying data that would be valuable but historically have been hard to get. Another ripe area is pinpointing opportunities to improve worker productivity via mobile devices.

Forward-thinking chemical makers are formulating their wireless strategies today. By carefully choosing wireless projects, working with experienced vendors and selecting wireless equipment that can handle today’s needs and provide the scalability to support future requirements, some sites already are well on their way to becoming “the plant of the future.”

Jeff Becker is director, global wireless business, for Honeywell Process Solutions, Phoenix, Ariz. E-mail him at
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