Wireless wins wider role

Wireless is poised for a big breakthrough in plant operations because of its ease of use, safety and potential for energy savings.

By C. Kenna Amos, contributing editor

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“The future only looks bright for wireless,” says Rob Brooks, process control supervisor at PPG Industries, Lake Charles, La. “Wireless lets you put information into operators’ hands that was not possible before. Wireless is a boon to safety, as well as operat-ing and maintenance procedures.” Brooks’ upbeat assessment is shared by many.

Implementation of wireless technology in the chemical indus-try remains spotty, but that will change if a July 2005 Chemical Processing poll is any indication. In it, 37% of the respondents said their site’s interest in wireless was very high; 18% said high; and 15% said moderate.

“People are just experimenting with wireless point solu-tions,” remarks Hesh Kagan, president of the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA) and director of technology for new business development for Invensys Process Systems, Foxboro, Mass.

“Most installations we’ve seen are where companies are try-ing to prove to themselves that wireless works in their environ-ment,” notes Steven Walker, engineering manager for Adalet Wireless, Cleveland.

Substantial savings

The main draw is economics, says an instrument control specialist at one multinational company’s plant. “If you can put in wireless, you avoid the costs of wire, conduit and cable trays.”

Energy savings are another strong incentive, says Jeff Yel-lets, senior segment marketing manager for Honeywell Process So-lutions, Phoenix. He notes, for instance, that steam-trap monitoring is the focus of a lot of current wireless activity.

Ten percent of the energy consumed in industries such as pet-rochemicals, steel, paper and glass could be saved by going to wireless, says Wayne Manges, wireless program manager at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Proponents say that wireless technology promises to do more than save money — it will revolutionize plant operations.

Broadening use

Right now, wireless gets the nod mostly for non-critical duties like level monitoring, especially at remote and off-site locations. How-ever, companies today are trying wireless for more than simple monitoring functions, notes Dave Kaufmann, director of business development for Honeywell. Some are starting to opt for wireless for keeping tabs on the custody transfer of raw materials across fence lines and even for critical services such as process control and safety. For instance, Yellets points out that plants are using wireless acoustic sensors downstream of relief valves and rupture disks. Kaufmann adds, “I was amazed at a customer using wireless for safety. They did all the necessary risk assessments. Wireless was best for them, they said.”

The biggest applications remain tank level monitoring and communications between field devices, says Jake Millette, senior analyst with Venture Development Corporation, Natick, Mass. One appeal of wireless is that it can serve as a gateway, or relay, be-tween two different vendors’ systems, such as a Siemens device and an Allen-Bradley controller, he notes.

Wireless input/output is hot in traditional systems, says Gra-ham Moss, president and founder of Elpro Technologies, Stafford, Australia. “We have customers that are buying programmable logic controllers (PLCs) purely as data-acquisition systems and then connecting the PLCs to wireless modems.”
Real-world examples bear out these observations.

For instance, since 2002, CDR Pigments & Dispersions, Hol-land, Mich., has used three Elpro transceivers at its wastewater treatment plant. Maintenance coordinator Mark Nyboer notes the units transmit data on pH, dissolved oxygen, flow, temperature and control valve position from the wastewater treatment basin to the main building. Previously, CDR sent the data by overhead cables. But lightning storms regularly disabled wired transmitters. “We discussed putting the wires underground, [but] it was cheaper to do wireless,” he adds, noting CDR saved $4,000 to $5,000.

Denver-based Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. just installed Emerson Process Management’s wireless equipment at its 20-million-ft3/d natural-gas compres-sor station in Parachute, Colo. It uses a level transmitter on each of three storage tanks that contain an oil/water mixture created from condensate, as well as a differential-pressure transmitter and one temperature transmitter at the glycol contactor. Encana has already seen cost savings, says Brandon Robinson, instrument-and-electrical (I&E) technician.

At its nylon 6 plant in Freeport, Texas, BASF uses approxi-mately 70 transmitters from Accutech Instruments, a division of Hudson, Mass.-based Adaptive Instruments. The transmitters pro-vide data on the positions of various isolation valves to a ModBus master, says Tom Kleiner, senior I&E engineer. The master inter-prets data and then activates lights on what’s called a mimic panel used by operators. “Wireless saved us from running wire for both power and signal to the valves,” he says, estimating a savings of $50,000.

BP is investigating the use of six Adalet wireless temperature transmitters on a paraxylene crystallizer. “We’ve been looking for this technology for years. It’s for use in hazardous locations,” ex-plains research engineer Ronald Stefanski, based in Naperville, Ill. He believes that commercial use of the technology at a plant in the U.S. (Figure 1) will be the worldwide paraxylene business unit’s first application of wireless. “We’re excited about the potential.”

Paraxylene pioneer

Figure 1. A plant such as this one in Decatur, Ala., may inaugurate worldwide business unit’s use of wireless in a hazardous location.

Emerging standards

To integrate different manufacturers’ wireless devices, users want to standardize on a single wireless “cloud” — an umbrella or network — over their plants, Kaufmann says. “What we’re hearing in the SP100 area [in ISA’s SP100 Committee, Wireless Systems for Automation] is that some end-users say they’re looking to put 20,000 wireless sensors at an installation.” He explains that SP100 is developing a user-driven, protocol-neutral standard.

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