Where is wireless going?

Increasing interest will translate into far more monitoring applications. The worldwide market for wireless technology will grow 26% annually over the next few years, forecasts the ARC Advisory Group. Vendors are responding and key concerns are being addressed.

By Mike Spear, editor at large

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The worldwide market for wireless technology will grow 26% annually over the next few years, forecasts the ARC Advisory Group, Dedham, Mass., in its “Wireless Technology in Process Manufacturing” report issued in August 2006.

According to ARC senior analyst Harry Forbes, that market was worth $325.7 million in 2005 and should rise to more than $1 billion by 2010. Driving that demand is a spreading realization among potential end users not only of the cost savings that accrue from doing away with wires but also, in Forbes’ view, of the “ability of wireless applications to enable new and better ways of operating manufacturing plants” — ways that will benefit chemical makers more than most, he says. So, wireless is coming, but in what ways, to what parts of the plant, and when?

The emphasis here, of course, is on the plant. Wireless communications have served for many years for remote monitoring in industries like oil and gas production and in water and power utilities. However, the potential for wireless technologies to link field devices and control systems in the plant is creating a groundswell of interest in the chemical industry.

Intense interest

“Almost every customer specification that comes in, from a systems level perspective, is talking about wireless at the moment,” says Hesh Kagan, director of technology for services, applications, and solutions marketing at Invensys Process Systems (IPS), Foxboro, Mass., and president of the Wireless Industrial Networking Alliance (WINA), San Ramon, Calif. “They may not be demanding wireless technology but they are asking for an upfront explanation of how we would approach the project from a wireless perspective.”

“From the level of interest we’re getting from our customers, we have a huge potential for wireless to be rapidly accepted and deployed in the market,” agrees Bob Karschnia, vice president of technology at Emerson Process Management, Austin, Texas. “Customers are fueling the industrial wireless revolution … it’s clear that we are at the tipping point for wireless to have a real impact in the plant,” notes Jack Bolick, president of Honeywell Process Solutions, Phoenix, Ariz.

So far, however, the actual impact of wireless has been limited, at least from a purely process point of view. Honeywell says it has installed its established XYR 5000 wireless transmitters at more than 200 sites around the world, along with mobile handheld devices such as the IntelaTrac PKS and the mobile Experion Station, but its process push will tie into the work of standards-making organizations such as the SP100 Committee of ISA, Research Triangle Park, N.C., the HART Communications Foundation (HCF), Austin, Texas, with Wireless HART, and through WINA. Honeywell, like most major control companies, is involved with all three groups.

An educational job still needs to be done, notes Ron Helson, HCF executive director, and not just for wireless. “Of the more than 20 million smart devices installed around the world, probably only 10% of them are actually connected to systems where users can take advantage of their intelligent capabilities,” he laments. “We see wireless helping to address that problem and enabling industry to get connected to those smart instruments. The biggest use for wireless is to allow users to access more easily information about their plant assets,” he says, echoing a comment credited to Honeywell’s Bolick that one of the main applications of wireless is to connect many more sensors than was previously cost effective directly to the process historian, rather than via the control loop.

Wireless also “opens up many more opportunities for incremental process measurements, says Kagan. What we hear from our customers is that, as a rule of thumb, if budgets were unconstrained, they would go out and instrument another 15% to 20% of the points they have. Wireless allows those budget dollars to go a lot further.”

Vendors respond

With beta testing of products expected early this year, Honeywell’s new wireless systems will use high-speed frequency-hopping spread-spectrum (FHSS) networks and “go anywhere” sensors with self-contained power sources and battery life of up to 10 years. The systems will feature integrated IEEE 802.11 networks (similar to WiFi) for sensors and handhelds and will operate on the globally available 2.4-GHz band. “This is our next generation system,” says Dave Kaufman, business development director for wireless, “and existing Honeywell wireless devices can connect to this system as a sub-network through a gateway.” Bolick describes the result as akin to a “wireless cloud,” a single multifunctional network supporting everything from security sensors to building management, asset management to process sensors.

IPS’s wireless strategy, announced at the 2005 ISA Expo in Chicago, relies on shared-access-point technology and common data and security models for all wireless devices, regardless of vendor or application. In effect, IPS takes on the management of all wireless services across the plant — an approach that has been successfully implemented at PPG Industries’ chlor-alkali complex at Lake Charles, La. (see Wireless wins wider role).

Completed in June 2006 by IPS and its strategic partner Apprion, Mountain View, Calif., the first phase of this comprehensive wireless project includes monitoring of temperature condition, site security (using remote video surveillance), regulatory environmental performance, and secure wireless laptop and PDA access to the site’s enterprise network.

But IPS isn’t yet wirelessly taking control of any aspects of the plant itself. “The first year of any program is always a learning experience, but what we’re seeing is really a pent-up demand for [wireless] solutions across the enterprise, where incremental process measurement is just one piece of the picture,” Kagan points out. That’s an experience shared by most other process control companies involved with wireless.

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