Wireless technology conquers industry conservatism

March 28, 2007
Potential applications at chemical plants just grow and grow, says Mike Spear, editor at large, in his End Point column.

Explaining why he thought the chemical industry remained reluctant to take up process intensification (PI) techniques, that pioneer of PI Professor Colin Ramshaw of the University of Newcastle in the U.K. once said it was because “there is a rush to be second.” In other words, while many can see the potential benefits, few want to be first in line to try out a technology that was then, and to a certain extent still is, largely unproven on the large scale. The conservatism of the industry of course extends well beyond PI.

Let’s face it, compared with, say, consumer electronics or even the automobile industry, there aren’t that many “early adopters” of new chemical processing technology. And those pioneers don’t tend to shout about their achievements — at least not until they’re sure the technology works, and works to their advantage.

Indeed, it can be tough for technology developers to break through into the mainstream of the chemical industry. But, exceptions proving the rule, once in a while a technology will come along and be taken up at such a rate that even its developers are surprised. Wireless technology is just such an exception, as developers such as Emerson Process Management, Austin, Texas, now are finding. “We have an initial product offering,” says Dan Carlson, the company’s senior wireless engineer, “but once the customer gets it, it’s as though everyone sees something new that they could use it for — it’s almost like giving them a brand new toolbox.”

That initial range of products is centered on the company’s Smart Wireless solutions and a Wireless SmartPack starter kit, which allows the customer to start small — with as few as five devices — to see where wireless might work for them. Although these products were only launched on to the market at the end of last year, Carlson already had been involved in three years of field trials with them at selected customers’ sites. He says that one of the common experiences he encountered then was in the initial reaction to wireless. “Because it’s a new technology,” he explains, “people are nervous, they’re skeptical, but once they start seeing the data side by side [with those from conventional wired instrumentation] they start to trust it.”

And now with products out there in the marketplace, those early reactions are changing. “All the feedback we’ve had is that everyone is really positive about wireless,” says Pat Babka, Emerson’s senior marketing manager for wireless. “What we’re finding now, as we have just started shipping [product], is that we’re starting to collect mainstream application data as customers expand their thoughts on wireless.”

For instance, Babka cites one company equipping its chemical product tank rail cars with wireless temperature monitors “to make sure there’s no reaction going on in them.” The wireless instruments can, if necessary, transmit alert signals from moving cars, a safety feature that simply wouldn’t have been possible with wired devices.

Carlson also points to the uptake of wireless by companies looking to improve their compliance with health, safety and environmental regulations. He sees the low-cost threshold of wireless as an enabling factor, with operating companies now able to install more monitoring and recording equipment in areas of the plant where previously it wasn’t economically viable to do so. “What the environment agencies really want to see,” he says, “is no interruption of the data flow going into the environmental records. So if you can automate the input of data through wireless instrumentation, you take the human element out of the loop. It gives more transparency to the system and also gives the environment agency a little more assurance that the correct steps are happening.”

While technologies like PI might still be taking their first small, tentative steps into the mainstream, the early adopters of wireless certainly seem to be striding ahead with it in a host of application areas.

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